The first half of "Every Last One" reads like a slice-of-life novel with no visible plot. We live the minutiae of a suburban family with three teenagers; jobs, friends, ups and downs. One brother is depressed for no apparent reason and starts seeing a therapist; the sister’s newly rejected boyfriend is having trouble getting over her and hangs around too much. The family is neither extraordinarily happy nor extraordinarily dysfunctional, simply normal to the point of boring.
Suddenly, about halfway through the book, a shocking tragedy hits. Looking back, the reader can recall subtle warning signs that take on significance in the context of what actually happened but, at the time, seemed relatively innocuous. The tragedy leads to some dramatic revelations and pieces of the puzzle, also gently hinted at earlier, start falling into place.
I appreciated the book's realism in this sense. Although the build-up to the pivotal event was arguably too slow, the apparent normalcy before the tragedy seemed far more lifelike than the heavy foreshadowing of more mediocre novels. People’s reactions in the aftermath of the tragedy also felt very authentic. There was a lot of quiet insight here, briefly made points that you skim over and then think back on and say, wow – that really captures it.
The weakness of the book, for me, was its structure. Rather than a plot that flowed continuously, there was a long and descriptive before period, a briefly told main event, and then a long and descriptive aftermath. I spent much of the first half waiting for the story to start, and much of the second half simply watching the characters pick up the pieces. I almost feel like it might have worked better as a short story.
Still, there's no denying that Anna Quindlen is a talented author and this was definitely a decent read, if not a great one.