Summary and book reviews of All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

All He Ever Wanted

by Anita Shreve

All He Ever Wanted
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2003, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2004, 352 pages

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Book Summary

A powerful exploration of the music and silences of family life, the unhinging forces of desire, the wrenching power of secrets unrevealed, and the bewildering territories of betrayal and loss.

What is a woman's price?

Etna Bliss has just moved to the New England town where her uncle teaches college when her life is transformed in a single stroke. She is dining in a hotel downtown when a fire forces her to escape to the snowy streets outside. Amid the smoke and chaos of that night she is glimpsed, standing under a streetlight, by a man who was dining in the same room-a man who is so overwhelmed by the sight of her that he rebuilds his life around a single goal: to marry Etna Bliss.

That man is Nicholas Van Tassel, and All He Ever Wanted is his account of how two lives changed from that tumultuous night forward. A proud and orderly man, Van Tassel is ill equipped to deal with the ferocity of love. But he is determined to have Etna no matter what the cost. Riding a train south many years later, he unwinds his memories of the years that followed and struggles to understand the mystery his life became on that night.

This is no ordinary tale of obsession. It is a story about different kinds of love, different ideas of what love is, and how lives can be strained to breaking over those differences. It is a powerful exploration of the music and silences of family life, the unhinging forces of desire, the wrenching power of secrets unrevealed, and the bewildering territories of betrayal and loss. Written with the maturity, beauty, intelligence, and grace that are Anita Shreve's hallmarks, this is a story that powerfully conjures another time and place-peopled by unforgettable characters as real as the emotions that bring them together.

The fire began in the kitchen and spread to the hotel dining room. Without warning, or perhaps just the one muffled cry of alarm, a ball of fire (yes, actually a ball) rolled through the arched and shuttered doorway from the kitchen, a sphere of moving color so remarkable, it was as though it had life and menace, when, of course, it did not — when, of course, it was simply a fact of science or of nature and not of God. For a moment, I felt paralyzed, and I remember in the greatest detail the way the flame climbed the long vermilion drapes with a squirrel’s speed and agility and how the fire actually leapt from valance to valance, disintegrating the fabric and causing it to fall as pieces of ash onto the diners below. It was nearly impossible to witness such an event and not think a cataclysm had been visited upon the diners for their sins, past or future.

If the fact of the fire did not immediately penetrate my consciousness, the heat of the blast did and soon propelled ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


  1. How would you describe the voice of the novel's narrator? What does the manner in which Nicholas Van Tassel tells the story suggest to you about his character? How reliable a narrator is he?

  2. We learn about Etna only through Nicholas. Do you think we see her clearly? What role do the "letters" play? What about Nicholas's comments and asides on these letters? Do they shed more light on Nicholas or on Etna?

  3. Some readers have seen Nicholas as a monster; others have been moved by his humanity. How do you feel about him? Do you think he knows himself?

  4. Do you agree with Nicholas's own assessment that "we design our own fate, to suit our circumstances" (page ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

USA Today

Shreve is a master at depicting passion's ferocious grip....there's something addictive about her literary tales of lust and love.

Publishers Weekly

Shreve has revealed an impeccably sharp eye and a generous emotional sensitivity in describing the moment when a man and a woman become infatuated with each other. She is less successful this time out...

Kirkus Reviews

Full-bodied storytelling with an unflinching moral backbone one of Shreve's best.

Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson

Boldly plotted and inventively told, Shreve's latest novel is further proof that she is a natural-born storyteller with a shrewd sense of how to shape her material to best appeal to the commercial market.

Reader Reviews

John Taylor

I found "All He Ever Wanted" one of the best novels I have read for many years.
Her skilful plot with its almost endless suspense is outstanding.
Her use of language reminds me of Iris Murdoch with touches of Poe , Hawthorne and Thomas Hardy thrown ...   Read More

Melanie

I have read all of Shreve's books and this one did not disappoint. She had an interesting way of telling yet another compelling story. The characters, plot and setting are all very strong. As always, what isn't said, is just as intriguing as what is ...   Read More

Maureen

This is the second book by Anita Shreve I've read--The Pilot's Wife, the first. This was a very different read, but truly amazing! I couldn't put it down. I found it haunting and compelling. My emotions were on a roller coaster with my sympathy...   Read More

hilary

I have just finished reading "All He Ever Wanted" by Anita Shreve. I have enjoyed several of her novels and feel that this one matches all of the others in the quality of the writing and the depiction of character and emotion. I too would like to ...   Read More

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