06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Very Worst Happens In Anna Quindlen's 'Every Last One.' You'll Weep. Then The Healing Starts.

A very bad thing --- for a wife and mother, the worst possible thing --- happens right at the halfway mark of Every Last One, and if I tell you what it is, I'll ruin the first half of the book and maybe more.

So forgive me if I'm obscure here. Anna Quindlen is a writer-and-a-half --- a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her columns in The New York Times, beloved author of half a dozen novels --- and she has a smart, loyal audience of women who, as it turns out, are also the core of my readership. Slow I may be, stupid not. No spoilers lie ahead.

Mary Beth Latham, the novel's narrator and main character, is an ordinary woman who makes a big deal of her ordinary status: suburban, white, married, three teenage kids. "This is my life" --- the first line of the book ---- launches a litany of the start of her day. Alarm at 5:30 (her husband, an eye doctor, sleeps on). On with the robe ("printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the winter"). The coffeemaker clicks as she leaves the bathroom. Newspaper on the back step. Dog out of the kennel and into a bowl of kibbles. Wake kids. Off to work.

"One day I was a freelance copy editor," she tells us. "Then I had three children, then I took a master gardening class, then I started a landscaping business. The business is successful."

Yes, you know this woman. Maybe you are this woman. Then it may be very familiar to you that the problems are buried, that the family moves from one surface intimacy to the next, that Mary Beth feels blessed:

I never thought anything really bad would happen. It was all the good things that seemed real to me --- where they'd go off to college and where they'd live and what my grandchildren would call me.

Quindlen is sensationally good at showing how life can be a celebration of the daily ritual, but she does it far too long. (Women may disagree; a complicated but loving family with no greater problems than one depressed kid and a daughter's clinging boyfriend could be catnip for a lot of readers.) After a while, I started skimming --- I actually wanted to get the Very Bad Thing.

After the Very Bad Thing, I was pretty much a mess. Flaubert wept as he wrote the death of Bovary; I imagine Quindlen shed buckets when she broke Mary Beth like a twig and then forced her to go on for another 150 pages. It's tough reading --- some, I'm sure, will find it too tough after the sweetness of the first half --- but astringent. It feels good, sometimes, to cry about people who aren't real.

Here's how talented Anna Quindlen is: She has an "ordinary" woman narrate a wise, closely observed, achingly eloquent book, and you never wonder how Mary Beth could be that smart . Quite a trick. Forty pages shorter, and it would have been a classic trick.

[Cross-posted from]