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3.3 out of 5 stars30
3.3 out of 5 stars
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on 14 March 2006
I always enjoy Anita Shreves writing. Her style is a beautiful elegant prose which is descriptive without being wordy. This is my favorite of her books and I have passed it to all my reading friends (to universal praise). Ms Shreve is often described as a romance writer altough there is really nothing romantioc about this book. Nicholas Van Tassel recounts the story of his relationship with Etna Bliss, it is curiously one sided as Etnas actions are described from Nicholas' view and her voice is only heard once through a series of brief letters. What emerges is a study of Nicholas' character. An educated man in a Victorian world his flaws are dissected with a clarity which still allows you to retain some sympathy for him despite his behaviour. Etna remains for us as she does for him an unknown quanitity despite his passion for her. As their relationship is descibed by an older Nicholas through its almost inevitable unraveling it builds to a disturbing climax which leaves you reflecting on how much anyone knows about the people they love
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on 27 December 2008
This is the story not of an evil man, rather of a 'sad' man - an unexceptional man, who nevertheless wants success. Now sixty-four, Nicholas van Tassel tells his own story; how, at the turn of the 20th century and at the age of thirty, a bachelor and professor at a New England college, his eyes fall upon Etna Bliss and from that moment he's a man obsessed. He must have her and he will have her under any conditions. Etna is a woman of her time and a victim of circumstances which she sees as beyond her control - marriage seems a solution, even though she admits to Nicholas that she doesn't love him. His love for her, however, is so overwhelming that he believes she will, in time, learn to return that love. A recipe for disaster of course, heightened by the fact that he discovers on their wedding night that his wife is not a virgin! The years pass and the couple have two children; all appears well even though Etna has never found any passion for her husband. Then, fourteen years later, a newcomer arrives at the College and this sets a series of ripples in motion. Jealousy is born within Nicholas as he feels threatened; this time he will do what he has to in order to hold onto what he sees as his - both in his personal and professional life. At this time, Etna, although constrained by the conventions of that age, has a spark of independence in her and it's the actions that result from this free spirit that eventually cause the death of the marriage. Van Tassel, however, is even then reluctant to admit defeat and in trying desperately to win her back, he reduces himself to lies and deceit. Anita Shreve has created a real-life character in Van Tassel; we are able to observe how the gift of love can just as easily turn into a curse. And love has no respect for intelligence - all are equal when caught in its thrall and all can find themselves capable of acting upon baser instincts when loss is threatened. A good read(and this was second time 'round for me!).
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on 30 January 2004
I have read 5 of her books - and this is ranks fifth in my opinion. There are two major protagonists - neither of which I was drawn too - and in fact found distasteful most of the time. I expect this is how we are meant to feel - since the book reflects the many lives that are lived without passion or love. I had to force myself to keep reading throughout the book, and whilst it was satisfying to finally know the reason for such chilliness within the protagonists hearts I did not find the book worth the effort. It's written in a dry tone to reflect the dryness of the marriage. I found myself wishing I knew the other people's stories - not that of Nicholas. Unsatisfying, and vaguely depressing.
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on 15 September 2004
Not by any means a happy read, but one which no doubt reflects the experience of many. Shreves writing captures the hope of a man desperately in love and constantly hoping to receieve what is in his heart to give. As a male reader I was intrigued at her insight into the male psyche, and the elegance with which she explores the confusion and pain of the central character. If you have known the pain of unrequited love, the grasp of false hope, then you will identify with, and be absorbed by this book. A number of reviews are negative, yet I found this the most intriguing of stories, perhaps because of its realism
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on 24 July 2003
This book marks a change of tone for Shreve, but if anything shows her as a more mature writer. Having read and enjoyed all her previous novels (with the exception of 'The Pilot's Wife') I approached this one with the same sense of expectation - I was not disappointed. Though quieter, many of the usual themes are there, but handled almost at a distance: we see almost everything through the skewed vision of the narrator. The moment I finished this novel I knew it was one I will read again at some stage, to savour slowly. This is a beautiful novel and will mark Shreve's transition to a new stage in her writing - to put it bluntly, this one could find its way on to a literature syllabus. If you have yet to read it, I envy you.
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This is a terrific period novel by the author, and she very capably captures the social mores and customs of the times. Dealing with desire and obsession, secrets and betrayal, the book certainly delivers a rich reading experience that will keep the reader riveted to its pages.

The story therein is a first person narrative told in flashback by Nicholas Van Tassel. The pivotal story begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when the narrator is an undistinguished professor at a small New England college. A bachelor, he spies Etna Bliss, a pretty, single woman and falls in love at first sight. As luck would have it, he enables her to escape from a fire, creating a connection that he will use to press his suit. That chance meeting will ultimately end in marriage. After all, her only other option is to live as a poor relation in her married sister's household.

What happens to Nicholas and Etna, as well as the tragic results of the bargain they each made when they entered into their marriage, reveals much about each of them and is also reflective of the time in which they lived. This is a wonderfully told, thematically complex tale that is evocative of a bygone era.
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on 2 September 2003
As stated by previous reviewers, Ms Shreve has deviated from her usual style of writing to produce "All He Ever Wanted". The novel is set in the late 19th/early 20th century and the author writes from the perspective of a man who has been in love with (and obsessed with) one woman, Etna Bliss, for almost all of his adult life. He makes it his mission to win Etna and begins to pursue her until she marries him. However, on the wedding night, he believes that he is not the only man that has ever known Etna intimately and this knowledge consumes him with jealousy and his subsequent actions (although he still adores Etna) achieve the opposite of what he hopes for. Although this novel is quite different from others written by Anita Shreve, it is still very compelling and rather poignant. My only criticism is the way that certain passages seem to ramble on about things that are circumstantial to the storyline, but to the extent that they become boring (I found myself skimming over these parts) and therefore I've only awarded it 4 stars.
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on 8 March 2004
I struggled through the first chapter or two of this book, then it swept me up and I didn't put it down until I had finished. The language is old-fashioned and a little flowery yet works well to draw the reader in to the story. The story is told by a college professor looking back over his marriage which took place 30-odd years before. The old man feels the need to explain his marriage to his son who is about to become a father.
Nicholas Van Tassel meets Etna Bliss when they both escape from the dining room of the local hotel which happens to be burning down around their ears. From the start Van Tassel is overwhelmed with longing for Etna. Even when they are married he never stops longing for her. While she becomes his wife, Etna never gives herself to her husband in any sense of the word. In many ways she remains a stranger to both him and to the reader. We only ever hear her husband's version of events, apart from a few letters he discovers. Etna is a woman of secrets and all is not revealed by the book.
This is a good story that is beautifully written. I was fully absorbed by it and once it got going it was never dull. All the major characters are deserving of sympathy in their own way and I spent most of the book knowing it was knowing it was all going to end in tears but hoping it wouldn't. There is no simple happy ending to this book, although it isn't totally without hope, which felt very right. A happy ending would have been a cop-out.
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The fantastically prolific Anita Shreve tends to alternate between historical and contemporary fiction. This novel, set at the start of the 20th century, is a thoughtful examination of how love can develop into obsession with terrible consequences.

Nicholas Van Tassel, Shreve's narrator, is a rather priggish and stolid Dutch-American professor of literature at a small college in New Hampshire. One evening, there is a fire at the hotel where he is dining, and quite by chance the evacuation of the building leads to his meeting the beautiful and rather oddly named Etna Bliss (did Shreve deliberately give her heroine such a suggestive name?!). Van Tassel, a confirmed bachelor, immediately falls obsessively in love, and soon is wooing Etna assiduously, bringing her books (though he's really got very little interest in her intellect) and taking her out for walks and for meals. When he proposes, Etna initially seems reluctant to give an answer - but her circumstances change, and Van Tassel manages to persuade her that life as his wife will be infinitely preferable to working as an unpaid governess for her sister's children. Etna reluctantly agrees to the marriage, but on the condition that Van Tassel will accept that though she likes him she does not love him, and does not believe her feelings will change. Van Tassel of course is too besotted to see the danger in marrying a woman who is not in love with him, and believes he can change Etna's feelings. But he has a very nasty surprise on the wedding night, when it appears that his wife is not a virgin. From then on, Van Tassel's love begins to take on a strange and fanatical quality, as over the next 15 years he ponders endlessly who Etna's lover could have been, and how he can make his wife feel passion for him. And with the arrival of a handsome new professor at the university, and Etna's growing need for solitude, Van Tassel's obsession begins to become dangerous, not only to him and Etna, but to their adolescent daughter and young son... the final section of the previously leisurely novel has the urgency of a crime drama as Van Tassel comes up with a scheme to try to get Etna to stay with him for ever - but can he succeed?

Shreve writes beautifully (particularly about New Hampshire, an area close to her heart) and despite her stodgy and unpleasant narrator (Van Tassel is egotistic, anti-Semitic, greedy, pompous and quite possibly an academic plagiarist) tells a narrative that is always readable and interesting. She even makes you feel sorry for her protagonist at times. Etna, a woman whose main desire after 15 years of marriage is a small cottage where she can sit alone and read and sew, is an intriguing character, and I liked the complicated emotional situation that arose when Philip Asher arrived in the town. The almost Othello-like examination of jealousy was masterfully handled, even if what ultimately happened seemed rather an anti climax. And Shreve addressed very well the issue of what women's lives were like when they really couldn't get independence through their own work, and had to compromise to a larger degree in marriage. So, why only three stars? There are two reasons. Firstly, I found the daughter Clara (who turns out to play a vital part in the plot) rather too colourless and thought Shreve could have developed her more. And secondly, I couldn't help feeling it was a real shame that Nicholas was the sole narrator, and we got everything told from his viewpoint. Although Shreve deserves a lot of credit for keeping the narrative interesting with such a dull narrator, I did grow tired of Nicholas's pompous voice after the first 100 or so pages, and would have loved to have more of the story (rather than just the short section of letters near the end) told from the point of view of Etna, Philip or Clara. By the end of the book I was definitely glad to part company with Professor Van Tassel, and I don't imagine, much though I admired Shreve's writing, that I'd want to spend much time in his company again. I gather that Shreve's latest book may feature Etna in a new guise, so am looking forward to reading that, and maybe hearing about this unhappy couple from her point of view.
three and a half stars and definitely recommended if you're a Shreve fan though it's not her best.
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on 27 June 2005
The world is full of romances with happy endings, often poorly written. Some of the above reviewers were hoping for yet another.
This is my first Shreve and I was delighted. The first person narrative forces us to have some sympathy with the narrator, although it soon becomes apparent that he is not very likeable. Eventually he compounds all his earlier faults with a massive wrong-doing that cannot be accepted. The heroine, a woman trapped by her time and circumstances, does her best to live a compromise.
This is a dark story, and beautifully crafted.
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