Nina Browning learns the hard way that “sometimes you just can’t see the things that are the closest to you” when she discovers her teenage son has taken an inappropriate picture of a girl passed out at a party and sent it to his friends with a racist caption. Emily Giffin’s newest novel, “All We Ever Wanted,” explores relationships between parents and children who are both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence and harassment. Giffin’s talent for taking on unique perspectives and delving into sensitive yet important subjects makes this novel a thought-provoking read. “All We Ever Wanted” falls flat only at the end—but maybe because we as a society are still trying to figure out how the stories of both survivors and perpetrators should end.
Giffin takes on many hot-button issues in this novel, but her focus is sexual violence and its close ties with entitlement and wealth. Nina’s son is accused of taking an inappropriate photo of a minor named Lyla, and Nina is horrified as a mother, as a woman, and as a survivor of sexual assault. She worries that her husband’s elitist attitudes have fostered an environment in which her son, Finch, believes he can have whatever he pleases. Still, Nina doesn’t only blame her husband: She apologizes many times to Lyla and her father, admitting to them, “I’m his mother. I should have taught him better.”
“All We Ever Wanted” takes a nuanced look at all those affected by these situations, including the survivor’s and perpetrator’s loved ones. Nina feels immense disgust at her husband’s lack of guilt, and Lyla’s father is devastated by the way his daughter has been treated. Lyla’s father is stuck between his “daughter’s pleading eyes and tone” as she begs him not to make a big deal out of the incident and his need to show his daughter that she deserves justice. Giffin accurately portrays the Catch-22 that so many survivors face: to speak publicly in hope of justice and at the risk of social consequences, or to try to heal privately while the perpetrator remains unpunished.
“All We Ever Wanted” is written from three points of view: Nina Browning, Lyla, and Lyla’s father, Tom. Giffin expertly captures the voice of three very different narrators. Lyla is a teenager and therefore her language is more colloquial, using slang such as “low-key” and starting a sentence with “anyway” after long tangents. Tom’s chapters perfectly embody a father struggling to understand his teenage daughter, while reconciling his inability to fully connect with Lyla and his insistent belief that he knows what’s best for her. Nina is aware of the privileged world she lives in, often making statements about the society she is a part of. Giffin’s ability to write such distinct voices is impressive given the scope of these perspectives.
Unfortunately, the ending is abrupt and vague—namely, Finch’s hearing is skipped and summarized. But perhaps this is not a fault on Giffin’s part but rather a reflection of our society. Because there is no general consensus on how harshly perpetrators of sexual harassment, such as Finch’s inappropriate picture-taking, should be punished, there is no predictable happy ending for Giffin to employ. Take the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford student who committed sexual assault in 2015. Many were outraged that he was only sentenced to six months (and released after serving only three), while others complained his jail time was, as his father wrote in a letter, “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” Perhaps skipping over the moments where punishment was decided says more about society’s lack of consensus on the issues of sexual violence than it does Giffin’s writing. Regardless, the final chapters raise questions that are not easily answered about punishment and consequences.
Even with a somewhat unsatisfactory ending, Giffin has managed to write a story that is thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, and, at times, heartwarming. Giffin has taken a deeper look into a sensitive topic, leaving readers to think a little harder about the current climate surrounding sexual assault.
—Staff Writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_tew
The Ripple EffectBeing sexually assaulted had paradoxically made me ignore his sense of safety and his agency. I was passing on to him the burden of my assault without his consent.
Sexual Assault IS Our FaultAs founders of the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign, we write to clarify how rape culture operates and how it complicates the responsibility of community members.
Sexual Assault Bill Author Encourages Youth ActivismAmanda N. Nguyen ’13, founder and president of advocacy group Rise, criticized the lack of support the legal system affords sexual assault victims and emphasized young people’s ability to change that system during an address in Currier House Monday.
Why We Need Title IXTitle IX has given survivors a voice, and Harvard is listening, but without proper enforcement, students who experience sexual violence will no longer be given the time and support they need to heal and continue their educations.
Will the Perpetrators Please Stand Up?