Silvie Bates-McAllister has lived her life steeped in family history. For many years, she has served on the Board of Directors of Swithin, the private school that her grandfather rebuilt and reestablished after it was destroyed by a fire. Both of her sons, Charles and Scott, attended the school, of course. And along with her recently-deceased husband, James, she raised her boys in the museum-like family home that she insisted remain exactly as it was left by her grandfather.
Joanna grew up reading about the Bates-McAllisters in the society pages, so she could not believe it when she actually encountered Charles in a bar one evening. Married not long ago, they are moving from their city apartment to a new home of their own. Charles hates his job as an advertising writer, and Joanna worries that Charles is still pining over his former girlfriend, Bronwyn. She has never learned the full details of their break-up or the huge fight between Charles and Scott that she believes precipitated it.
While Charles is the biological child of Silvie and James, Scott was adopted as a toddler. He has always been reckless, wild, unfocused and defiant. He is living with Silvie and working at the wrestling coach at Swithin, the latest of a series of jobs he has held.
When Swithin’s new headmaster notifies Sylvie that one of the members of the wrestling team has been found dead and there are rumors swirling about hazing rituals that Scott may have been aware of or even encouraged, Sylvie’s ritualistic, organized life threatens to implode. The strained relationships of the Bates-McAllisters may not survive this crisis.
As Everything We Ever Wanted opens, Sylvia learns of the possibility that her youngest son, Scott, has been involved in activities at Swithin which could not only scandalize the school and family, destroying the family reputation and legacy that she has spent her life nourishing and protecting. What quickly becomes clear is that author Sara Shepard is more interested in the various family members’ reactions to the news and what it might mean to the family’s standing in the community and future than in the actual mystery surrounding the boy’s death.
The Bates-McAllisters have long lived their lives shrouded in secret resentments, disappointed, and unspoken feelings. As each learns the news that Scott may have been involved in or condoned something as unseemly as hazing, their reactions reflect their own troubled relationship with Scott. Sylvie built her life around her husband, sons, and her family’s long history in the community. She has worked tirelessly to preserve the family’s reputation, keeping up appearances. The character is reminiscent of Beth, portrayed so beautifully by Mary Tyler Moore in Robert Redford’s seminal film Ordinary People. Silvie is refined, poised, and restrained despite the fact that the emotional turmoil she has experienced for years threatens to erupt at any more and destroy the facade she has so elaborately and painstakingly erected. Through flashbacks, her relationship with James is also explored. His recent death has left Silvie reeling, and she has to decide whether she really wants to uncover the truth about certain aspects of their marriage.
Charles had an extremely difficult relationship with his late father, who ridiculed and belittled him while favoring Scott. Like Silvie, Charles kept his resentment of Scott in check until one fateful night when something horrible happened between them, the details of which he refuses to reveal to Joanna. And, of course, that only serves to heighten Joanna’s curiosity and fuel her own insecurity about Bronwyn. Her fear that Charles is still in love with his former girlfriend threatens to derail their still-new marriage.
Everything We Ever Wanted also explores the issue of adoption. Scott is plagued by what he does not know about his birth mother and the circumstances under which she gave him up. Coupled with the fact that he is so different from the other members of his family, Scott has spent his life trying not to conform. Silvie has enabled him in many ways and continues to do so. Scott is handsome, charming, and has been allowed to get away with behavior that would never have been condoned from Charles, further complicating Scott’s efforts to understand who he is and what he really wants. Scott’s relationship with Joanna poses an additional threat to her marriage to Charles. Scott and Joanna, two people who do not feel that they belong in the world they have been thrust into, are forced to confront and evaluate their feelings for each other.
Shepard tells the story from the various characters’ vantage points, frequently retelling different aspects so that readers can experience events through the characters’ ears. It is an effective technique which, somewhat surprisingly, serves to compel the story forward rather than cause it to bog down. Her exploration of the characters’ carefully veiled emotional struggles, particularly as to Sylvie, are neither overwrought nor melodramatic.
Everything We Ever Wanted is a story about a family that should, by all appearances, be happy, successful, and devoid of turmoil. After all, on the surface, the Bates-McAllisters appear to have everything — wealth, privilege, and advantages that many people only dare dream about. Still, they are not spared from their own frail humanity. They are not thoroughly likable, but in Shepard’s capable hands they are believable and, despite their shortcomings, Shepard compels her readers to care about what happens to them. The result is a fascinating reminder that no one leads a perfect, trouble-free life and appearances are often extremely deceiving.