Nothing illuminates a family secret like death. Author Jami Attenberg illustrates this clearly in her newest novel, All This Could Be Yours. When Victor, the family patriarch, is hospitalized by a heart attack, the morbid countdown begins to discover the truth about his troubled marriage. Victor and Barbra were nearly exact opposites, but Victor’s energy was gravitational. Be it his seedy con-artist associates or his elicit affairs, Victor was never in need of attention and he always took advantage of every opportunity and every person he could, including his wife. He collected secrets like debts and never paid for any of it quite as he should have.
Victor and Barbra’s children, Alex and Gary, developed a special bond powered by their hatred of their father and subsequent confusion by their mother’s loyalty. If there were a time to get to the bottom of such a bizarre relationship, it’s when it has reached its undeniable end. It becomes clear early that Gary has taken more damage from the shrapnel of their parents and essentially opts out of the entire ordeal. Alex, however, has all intentions of picking her mother’s brain, hoping the sudden shock of near (and eventual) loss will soften her defenses. She takes the task seriously over the next few days attempting to peek into the darkest corners of her family history. As Barbra walks around the hospital counting tens of thousands of steps along with her pedometer, she’s determined to keep the reasons for her devotion under lock and key.
Attenberg’s attention to detail zooms in on the interpersonal relationships that are either nurtured or fractured between different pairings of people. The conceptual coupling that is most compelling is the parent/child dynamic throughout the novel. Initially, it was the father/daughter that seemed to have the most energy, but readers will realize there isn’t much change or growth. Sadie, Alex’s daughter, hates her father because of his remorseless philandering and he remains a single “playboy” into her adult years. Barbra’s father exits her life rather quickly and she’s unable to reconcile with him, but she channels her disappointment into her passion for furniture. What Alex sought from her mother, sadly, was never revealed, however, Barbra does provide some insight on the unresolved problems Victor left behind.
One microscopic flaw of this novel is the point of view transitions. Readers are able to see into the thoughts of random characters — some are inconsequential and seem almost arbitrary — and some of them turn out to be tangentially connected to the core family. But there lies one of the most poignant moments written, particularly between Sharon (the coroner who handles Victor’s remains) and her mother:
“’I don’t know what to tell you,’ said Sharon. ‘I don’t know how to make you happy without making me unhappy. And I’m good, Mommy. I’m real good in my life. Everything is calm and good.’ She took her mother’s hand. ‘This is it. This is me.’
‘…I want you to have everything,’ said her mother.
‘I got a car, I got a condo, I got a job that I love, I got you and Daddy, I got respect in the world from smart people, and I got a closetful of real nice shoes. That’s everything I need.’ She nudged a tear from her mother’s face. ‘I’m good. Please be happy for me.’
‘I’ll try,’ said her mother. And she did.”
Granted, this is a moment between two characters that do not spend much time on Attenberg’s pages, but it offers a passage that embodies the hope that also occurs within a family dynamic riddled with deceit and relational destruction. Though the darkest secret is exposed directly in-scene (though mistakenly revealed to Alex in an off-handed manner), it’s clear that Sharon and her mother have a bond that cannot be deterred. There is obviously a difference in opinion due to value, but the way these two women communicate is more than enlightening. Secrets are simply overripe fruit left to fall from the tree and rot only for new fruit to grow next season. Attenberg — quite beautifully, in fact — lets us know this family is not all bruises and dark spots.
All This Could Be Yours
By Jami Attenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published Oct. 22, 2019