"All I Ever Wanted" Lucy Dillon
Lucy Dillon is one of my 'go to' books for when I need a 'comfort read'. So this week on a wet, dark, cold morning when I was not feeling my brightest or my best, this book really was 'all I ever wanted' and actually 'all I ever needed' to unwind with. I was happy to settle into a story where I knew, despite the ups and downs that would inevitably test the characters, Dillon would deliver a satisfying read in which to escape for a few hours.
This novel has two story lines centred around one family. Caitlin and Patrick, parents of Nancy and Joel, find their marriage has come to an end. Patrick moves away to Newcastle. Caitlin tries to hold the family together. Nancy, a bubbly four year old, suddenly stops speaking. Joel, more extroverted, struggles as he tries to help Nancy survive without her own voice. The second story line is about Patrick's sister Eva who is recently widowed. Eva's house is to become the neutral space where the children can see their father. But Eva has never had children and even though they are her niece and nephew, she is inexperienced in looking after them, particularly as they are all trying to come to terms with such huge life changing situations. Dillon then explores both women's journey's as they come to terms with their relationships, needs, wishes and pasts, interweaving their narratives as they each start to realise what parenting, marriage, love and families means to them.
I liked both the chapters about Caitlin and the chapters about Eva. I liked that I was involved in two quite different stories about women at very different points in their marriages, yet they were linked - through themes as well as more physically through the children and Patrick. I found it really interesting and engaging how Dillon knitted them all together.
Caitlin was easy to like. She has a very honest and blunt voice and her comment in the opening pages that it was "the little things you fall in love with that make you want to stab your partner to death with a fork in the end" felt very well observed! The way Patrick opened his "notebook of issues to raise in mediation" were incredibly visual and immediately created an image of his practical, focussed, workaholic character.
Their story is sad. Patrick has always put work first; to him, this is the best way to be a father by earning money to allow Caitlin to be at home with the children everyday. He knows he misses the "magical stuff" but he does so because he is working. He has a very clear, perhaps inflexible, outlook which is largely based on a misinformed image of his own parents. His view of them is based on photos and selective memories rather than the truth. Through the daily pressure of having a young family and working hard, Caitlin and Patrick have simply fallen out of love with each other.
Initially I was more sympathetic towards Caitlin and found her reflections about parenting very moving and real:
"the types of pain she most wanted to protect them from were invisible, out of her control, and these are the things that kept her awake at night."
But then, as the novel progress there are moments when I felt more sympathy towards Patrick. His explanations about why he thought he was doing the right thing and why he has put work first reveal his naivety and there was also something that made me feel pity for this man who was so desperately trying to do the right thing but in fact getting it so wrong. I like that we roll from one character to the other, realigning our feelings as we watch how they behave and react to various situations. Dillon never quite lets us side with only one character, she wants us to feel sympathy for them all in different ways.
Of course, this is how it is in life, particularly any kind of close relationship. Dillon's characters are real, fallible, guilty and not without fault but they are also trying to be the best wife, husband, mother and father they can. They've just got a bit lost along the way. It's not until towards the end of the book when they actually start to be properly honest with each other that their relationship can begin to move forward. This was very believable and relatable. I liked Caitlin's frank comments that life was "never quite as wonderful as people hope." But once she starts to accept that life is better when you do your best rather than what you think you should be doing, or what you think others expect from you, then she is able to see her life differently and begin to right the wrongs.
In contrast we meet Eva, third wife of celebrity Michael Quinn, who has just died. Michael leaves behind him some personal diaries which Eva begins to read. Dillon uses the diaries initially as a lovely metaphor to reflect the turning point Eva is now facing in her life and as a way of her coming to terms with her past and her future. I also really enjoyed the passages where Eva recounted the events from her point of view and then we read them through Mickey's eyes. There were some entertaining recollections about his second wife Cheryl and her fashion sense - "billionaire Magpie"- and how much he revelled in taking the "glittery tat, all unworn, that flashed at me every time I opened the wardrobe" down to the charity shop.
Eva is very thoughtful and reflective. She feels quite isolated, her grief is palpable and reflects something deeper; a grief for a life that could have been or should have been and that enormous burden of wondering what to do next. Reading Mickey's diaries has a huge impact on her in so many ways and I really enjoyed how Dillon did this:
"'I often wonder what kind of kids Eva and I would have had.' There: one small, tender, pitiless sentence that cut her heart to shreds."
Eva has two pug dogs and it is the dogs that take the staring role when the children come to visit. In fact is is the dogs that show Eva how to build a relationship with the children - particularly the mute Nancy.
"Without thinking, she held out her hand [to Nancy]. Almost the same way the dog trainer had told her to let a strange dog sniff her out......Nancy responded."
There is a good balance and contrast between the two story lines; just the right number of characters to invest in, believe in and care about. Eva and Patrick's relationship as siblings also adds another layer and it is interesting to watch the different dynamics play out.
I really liked the themes that Dillon explores in this novel. There are the obvious ones about parenting, love, relationships, families and marriage; then the more emotional ones like guilt, fear, possession, grief and honesty. Then there are the more subtle concepts about expectations, choices and accepting reality. There is a lot to discuss with regards to dilemmas and choices. The idea of failure - or fear of failure - as well as rescuing people. As Dillon writes, we have editorial control of our own lives.
Some of the final passages actually contain quite profound messages. Isn't it worth being the "best version of ourselves rather than something they weren't?"
I adored the use of bubble mixture to blow secret wishes into. If you choose to do this novel with your book group, you would have to give everyone some bubble mixture to play with. It was an inspired moment and a truly beautiful and magical image.
And finally, Lucy Dillon thank you for the happy ending. I'm sorry if that's a huge spoiler but do you know, that is what I needed, and all I ever wanted when I started reading this book! If you are looking for something that tackles relevant issues, complex family dynamics with a few emotional revelations in a gentle, easy, well paced style, then this is the book for you! It's a pleasing and satisfying read with likeable characters and a plausible plot line that strikes a good balance between sadness, happiness, seriousness and humour.
"All I Ever Wanted" publishes on 1st December 2016.
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