Nina Browning, from a middle-class family in a small town, married into Nashville society. Kirk, her husband, recently made a fortune selling his software business, making them even more wealthy. Their adored only child, Finch, has been accepted to Princeton. Sometimes, Nina wonders if her idyllic life has led her away from the person she once was.
Tom Volpe is a single dad struggling to raise his headstrong daughter, Lyla. Parenting has been lonely, long, and hard but Lyla is doing well and has earned a scholarship to Windsor Academy, Nashville’s most prestigious private school. Only twenty percent of student receive financial assistance. So amid wealth and privilege, Lyla doesn’t always fit in — and her overprotective father doesn’t help matters. But overall, she’s a typical teenage girl.
Until one photograph, snapped in a drunken moment at a party, changes everything. As the image spreads among the students and parents of Windsor Academy, the community is polarized, buzzing with controversy and assigning blame.
Tom, Nina, and Lyla are at the heart of the scandal and all find themselves searching for the truth about that evening, questioning their closest relationships, contemplating who they really are and what they value most, and striving for the courage to live a meaningful life.
All We Ever Wanted spotlights characters with divergent socioeconomic backgrounds and standings, “haves” and “have nots.” Unlike her husband, Nina did not have a privileged upbringing. But since Kirk sold his software company a few years ago, their Nashville social status has been elevated. Now fabulously wealthy and able to afford anything they want, the Brownings appear to outside observers to have acquired everything they ever wanted: security, a beautiful home, friends, and Finch, their only child, a high school senior who has attended the exclusive Windsor Academy his entire life and has just been accepted to Princeton.
In contrast, Tom is a carpenter and part-time Uber driver raising his daughter, Lyla, alone on the other side of the river, i.e. “the other side of the tracks.” More than a decade ago, Lyla’s mother, who had a drinking problem, walked out. But she has stayed in touch sporadically, turning up for occasional visits with Lyla. Lyla attends Windsor Academy on a scholarship and wants to fit in with her wealthy classmates. She engages in typical teenage behavior such as sneaking out with her girlfriends and experimenting sexually.
What starts out as a typical Saturday night turns out to be the night that Finch makes “the worst decision of his life.” A photo taken during a party at his friend Beau’s house changes the lives of the Brownings and Volpes. The explicit photo of a partially clad Lyla bears a racist caption and is distributed to Finch’s Windsor Academy friends, setting off a series of events that neither family could have predicted or envisioned.
Emily Giffin tackles a disturbing and timely topic — powerful technology misused by teenagers who fail to comprehend and appreciation the long-lasting effects of their actions. All We Ever Wanted is an unapologetic, unflinching morality play in which technology serves as the plot device to set up the conflict. At the heart of the story are characters facing a timeless dilemma: What is the right thing to do? It is a tale about class structure, power, and the things that power can, but should not buy. It is a study in conscience and how powerful people who lack a moral compass will do anything to evade the consequences of their actions — even, perhaps, betray those closest to them. So it is also a story about such betrayal, told from the perspectives of Nina, Tom, and Lyla as they navigate the scandal into which they have been unwittingly thrust and search for the truth about what happened on that fateful Saturday night. Ultimately, it is a story about how well it is possible to really know those you love the most.
Did Finch take the photo, add the caption, and send it to his friends? Was it just a momentarily lapse of judgment by an otherwise honorable young man? Did Finch really just think the caption was funny, failing to appreciate the racist meaning to his words? Or was Finch’s motivation far more callous and uncaring than he claims? Is Finch cavalier or chivalrous? Did someone else take the photo and disseminate it in retaliation for having been rejected and hurt?
What was more important than squeezing in a conversation with my son about respecting women and other cultures and races? . . . I thought about our marriage, wondering exactly when our priorities had shifted away from our relationship and toward other things. I thought about all our small, seemingly insignificant daily choices and their cumulative effect. . . . I felt a deep, aching loneliness, coupled with a painful longing for a simpler time. ~~ Nina Browning in All We Ever Wanted
The character of Nina is the moral centerpiece of the story. She is a decent woman who married into but has never been fully comfortable living an ostentatious lifestyle. The incident at the party is the catalyst for her belated examination of her life and marriage. With no remaining alternatives, she must acknowledge that she and Kirk have been drifting apart ever since he sold his company. She has silently questioned much about their relationship, including his faithfulness, but never before dared to voice, much less confront her doubts. Giffin’s writing is at its finest when Nina considers the way she and Kirk have raised their son. Nina believed she was teaching him to be a kind, compassionate, and ethical man. As events unfold, she critiques her own mothering of Finch and resolves that she will never abandon or give up on the fundamental goodness she knows she instilled in her son. Giffin tenderly and believably charts Nina’s disappointment, as well as her strength and resiliency in the face of complete disillusionment.
Tom is also forced to analyze his parenting style, acknowledging that he has overcompensated for the fact that Lyla’s mother having abandoned her by being overprotective and volatile. But like Nina, he is determined to do what is right and best for his daughter.
All We Ever Wanted is a cautionary tale for parents. The story could easily be based on actual events. It is a searing exploration of the consequences of one careless, casual act that will leave readers pondering, “What would I do if . . .?” It is a riveting and deeply moving story about good people trying to do their best in trying circumstances, in spite of being deeply disappointed by the actions of those closest to them. All We Ever Wanted will resonate with readers long after they read the last page.
Excerpt from All We Ever Wanted
It started out as a typical Saturday night. And by typical, I don’t mean normal in any mainstream American way. There was no grilling out with the neighbors or going to the movies or doing any of the things I did as a kid. It was simply typical for what we’d become since Kirk sold his software company,and we went from comfortable to wealthy. Very wealthy.
Obscene was the description my childhood best friend Julie once used—not about us, but about Melanie, another friend—after Melanie bought herself a diamond Rolex for Mother’s Day and then offhandedly remarked at one of our dinner parties that homemade pottery from her kids “wasn’t going to cut it.”
“She could feed a Syrian refugee camp for an entire year with that watch,” Julie had groused in my kitchen after the other guests had departed. “It’s obscene.”
I’d nodded noncommittally, hiding my own Cartier under the edge of our marble island, as I silently reassured myself with all the ways my watch, and therefore my life, were different from Melanie’s. For one, I didn’t buy the watch for myself on a whim; Kirk gave it to me for our fifteenth anniversary. For another, I had always loved when our son, Finch, made me presents and cards in his younger years, and was sad that those had become relics of the past.
Most important, I don’t think I ever flaunted our wealth. If anything, it embarrassed me. As a result, Julie didn’t hold our money against me. She didn’t know our exact worth but had a general sense of it, especially after she’d gone house hunting with me when Kirk was too busy, helping me find our home on Belle Meade Boulevard, where we now lived. She and her husband and girls were regular guests at our lake house and our home on Nantucket, just as she happily inherited my gently used designer hand-me-downs.
Occasionally Julie would call Kirk out, though, not for being showy like Melanie but for having elitist tendencies. A fourth-generation silver-spoon Nashvillian, my husband grew up ensconced in a private-school, country-club world, so he’d had some practice at being a snob, even back when his money was merely old, and not yet obscene. In other words, Kirk came from a “good family”—that elusive term that nobody ever came out and defined, yet we all knew was code for having old money and a certain well-bred, refined taste. As in: he’s a Browning.
My maiden name, Silver, held no such status, not even by the standards of Bristol, the town on the Tennessee-Virginia border where I grew up and Julie still lived. We were no slouches—my dad wrote for the Bristol Herald Courier and my mom was a fourth-grade teacher—but we were squarely middle class, and our idea of living large was everyone ordering dessert at a nonchain restaurant. Looking back, I wonder if that may have explained my mom’s preoccupation with money. It wasn’t that she was impressed with it, but she could always tell you who had it and who did not, who was cheap and who was living beyond their means. Then again, my mom could pretty much tell you anything about anyone in Bristol. She wasn’t a gossip—at least not a mean-spirited one—she was simply fascinated by other people’s business, from their wealth and health to their politics and religion.
Incidentally, my dad is Jewish and my mother Methodist. Live and let live is their mantra, an outlook that was passed on to both my brother, Max, and me, the two of us embracing the more attractive elements of each religion, like Santa Claus and Seders, while punting Jewish guilt and Christian judgment. This was a good thing, especially for Max, who came out during college. My parents didn’t miss a beat. If anything, they seemed more uncomfortable with Kirk’s money than with my brother’s sexuality, at least when we first began to date. My mother had insisted that she was just sad I wouldn’t be getting back together with Teddy, my high school boyfriend, whom she adored, but I sometimes sensed a slight inferiority complex, and her worry that the Brownings were somehow looking down on me and my family.
To be fair, a half-Jewish girl from Bristol with a gay brother and no trust fund probably wasn’t their first choice for their only child. Hell, I probably wasn’t Kirk’s first choice on paper, either. But what can I say? He picked me anyway. I’d always told myself that he fell in love with my personality—with me—the same way I fell in love with him. But in the past couple of years I had begun to wonder about both of us, and what had brought us together in college.
I had to admit that when discussing our relationship, Kirk often referenced my looks. He always had. So I’d be naïve to think that my appearance had nothing to do with why we were together—just as I knew, deep down, that the patina and security of a “good family” had, in part, attracted me to him.
I hated everything about that admission, but it was definitely on my mind that Saturday night as Kirk and I took an Uber to the Hermitage Hotel for about our fifth gala of the year. We had become that couple, I remember thinking in the back of that black Lincoln Town Car—the husband and wife in an Armani tux and a Dior gown who were barely speaking. Something was off in our relationship. Was it the money? Had Kirk become too obsessed with it? Had I somehow lost myself as Finch grew older and I spent less time mothering him and more time in the role of full-time philanthropist?
I thought about one of my dad’s recent remarks, asking why my friends and I didn’t just skip the galas—and give all the money to charity. My mom had chimed in that we might be able to accomplish “more meaningful work in blue jeans than black tie.” I had gotten defensive, reminding them that I did that sort of hands- on work, too, such as the hours I spent every month answering calls on Nashville’s suicide helpline. Of course I hadn’t admitted to my parents that Kirk sometimes minimized that kind of volunteering, insisting that I was better off “just writing the check.” In his mind, a donation of dollars always trumped time; the fact that it came with more splash and credit was beside the point.
Kirk was a good man, I told myself now, as I watched him take a swallow of the bourbon roadie that he’d poured into a red Solo cup. I was being too hard on him. On both of us.
“You look fabulous,” he suddenly said, looking over at me, softening me further. “That dress is incredible.”
“Thanks, honey,” I said in a low voice.
“I can’t wait to take it off you,” he whispered, so the driver wouldn’t hear him. He gave me a seductive look, then took another drink.
I smiled, thinking that it had been a while, and resisted the urge to tell him that he might want to slow down on the booze. Kirk didn’t have a drinking problem, but it was a rare night that he didn’t at least catch a red-wine buzz. Maybe that was it, I thought. We definitely both needed to ease up on our social calendars. Be less distracted. More present. Maybe that would come when Finch went to college in the fall.
“So. Who have you told? About Princeton?” he asked, clearly thinking about Finch, too, and the acceptance letter he’d just received the day before.
“Other than family, only Julie and Melanie,” I said. “What about you?”
“Just the guys in my foursome today,” he said, rattling off the names of his usual golf buddies. “I didn’t want to brag . . . but I couldn’t help myself.”
His expression mirrored the way I felt—a mix of pride and disbelief. Finch was a good student, and had gotten into Vanderbilt and Virginia earlier that winter. But Princeton had been a long shot, and his admittance felt like a culmination and validation of so many parenting decisions, beginning with applying Finch to Windsor Academy, the most rigorous and prestigious private school in Nashville, when he was only five years old. Since then, we had always prioritized our son’s education, hiring private tutors when needed, exposing him to the arts, and taking him to virtually every corner of the globe. Over the past three summers, we had sent him on a service trip to Ecuador, to a cycling camp in France, and on a marine biology course in the Galápagos Islands. I recognized, of course, that we were at a distinct financial advantage over so many other applicants, and something about that (especially the check we’d written to Princeton’s endowment) made me feel a little guilty. But I told myself that money alone couldn’t gain a kid admission to the Ivy League. Finch had worked hard, and I was so proud of him.
Focus on that, I told myself. Focus on the positive.
Kirk was looking at his phone again, so I pulled mine out, too, checking Instagram. Finch’s girlfriend, Polly, had just posted a photo of the two of them, the caption reading: “We’re both Tigers, y’all! Clemson and Princeton, here we come!” I showed the picture to Kirk, then read aloud some of the congratulatory comments from children of our friends who would be in attendance tonight.
“Poor Polly,” Kirk said. “They won’t last a semester.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant the distance between South Carolina and New Jersey or the mere reality of young love, but I murmured my agreement, trying not to think of the condom wrapper that I’d recently found under Finch’s bed. The discovery was far from a surprise, but it still made me sad, thinking of how much he had grown up and changed. He used to be such a little chatterbox, a precocious only child regaling me with every detail of his day. There was nothing I hadn’t known about him, nothing he wouldn’t have shared. But with puberty came an onset of remoteness that never really cleared, and in recent months, we’d talked very little, no matter how hard I tried to break down his barriers. Kirk insisted it was normal, all part of a boy’s preparation to leave the nest. You worry too much, he always told me.
I put my phone back in my bag, sighed, and said, “Are you ready for tonight?”
“Ready for what?” he asked, draining his bourbon as we turned onto Sixth Avenue.
“Our speech?” I said, meaning his speech, though I would be standing beside him, offering him moral support.
Kirk gave me a blank stare. “Speech? Remind me? Which gala is this, again?”
“I hope you’re kidding?”
“It’s hard to keep them all straight—”
I sighed and said, “The Hope Gala, honey.”
“And we are hoping for what, exactly?” he asked with a smirk.
“Suicide awareness and prevention,” I said. “We’re being honored, remember?”
“For what?” he asked, now starting to annoy me.
“The work we did bringing mental health experts to Nashville,” I said, even though we both knew it had much more to do with the fifty-thousand-dollar donation we’d given after a freshman at Windsor took her life last summer. It was too horrible for me to process, even all these months later.
“I’m kidding,” Kirk said, as he reached out to pat my leg. “I’m ready.”
I nodded, thinking that Kirk was always ready. Always on. The most confident, competent man I’d ever known.
A moment later, we pulled up to the hotel. A handsome young valet swung open my door, issuing a brisk welcome. “Will you be checking in tonight, madame?” he asked.
I told him no, we were here for the gala. He nodded, offering me his hand, as I gathered the folds of my black lace gown and stepped onto the sidewalk. Ahead of me, I saw Melanie chatting amid a cluster of friends and acquaintances. The usual crowd. She rushed toward me, giving me air kisses and compliments.
“You look amazing, too. Are those new?” I reached up to her face, my fingertips grazing the most gorgeous chandelier diamond earrings.
“Newly acquired but vintage,” she said. “Latest apology from you know who.”
I smiled and glanced around for her husband. “Where is Todd, anyway?”
“Scotland. Boys’ golf trip. Remember?” she said, rolling her eyes.
“That’s right,” I said, thinking that it was hard to keep up with Todd’s boondoggles. He was worse than Kirk.
“Will you share this fella with me tonight?” Melanie asked with a shimmy of her shoulders as Kirk rounded the car and joined us.
“I’m sure he has no objections,” I said, smiling.
An accomplished flirt, Kirk nodded, giving Melanie a double-cheek kiss. “You look stunning,” he told her.
She smiled and thanked him, then shouted, “Omigod! I heard the fabulous news! Princeton! You must be so over-the-moon proud!”
“We are. Thanks, Mel. . . . Has Beau made a final decision?” Kirk asked, shifting the attention to Melanie’s son. His friendship with Finch, going all the way back to the first grade, was really the reason Mel and I had become so close.
“It’s looking like Kentucky,” Melanie said.
“Full ride?” Kirk asked.
“Half,” Melanie said, beaming. Beau was an average student but an amazing baseball player, and had similar offers from a handful of schools.
“That’s still really impressive. Good for him,” Kirk said.
For years I’d had the uncomfortable feeling that Kirk had been jealous of Beau’s baseball career. He often accused Melanie and Todd of being obnoxious, bragging too much about all-star this and that. But now it was easy for Kirk to be gracious; Finch had won, after all. Princeton trumped baseball. At least that’s how I knew my husband saw it.
As Melanie flitted off to greet another friend, Kirk announced that he was going to find the bar. “Do you want a drink?” he asked, usually quite chivalrous at the start of the evening. It was the end of the night that sometimes got iffy.
“Yes. But I’ll go with you,” I said, determined to spend quality time together, even in a crowd. “Can we please not make it a late night?”
“Sure. That’s fine,” Kirk said, slipping his arm around my waist as we walked into the glittering hotel lobby.
The rest of the night followed the usual gala script, beginning with cocktails and a silent auction. There was nothing I really wanted, but reminding myself that all the money was going to a good cause, I bid on a sapphire cocktail ring. Meanwhile, I nursed a glass of sauvignon blanc, made small talk, and reminded Kirk not to drink too much.
At some point, the dinner chimes sounded, the lobby bar stopped serving, and we were herded into an expansive ballroom to find our assigned tables. Kirk and I were at a ten-top, front and center, seated with three other couples we knew reasonably well, plus Melanie, who kept me more than entertained with a running critique of the décor (the floral arrangements were too high), the cuisine (chicken, again?), and the egregiously clashing red and maroon attire of the gala co-chairs (how could they not have thought to coordinate?).
Then, as an army of waiters trotted out our standard chocolate mousse desserts, the gala chairs introduced Kirk and me, heaping praise on us for our commitment to this charity and so many others. I sat up as straight as I could, feeling a bit nervous as I heard So, without further ado . . . Nina and Kirk Browning.
As the crowd applauded, Kirk and I rose and made our way to the short staircase leading up to the stage. With my hand in his, we ascended the steps, my heart pounding with a rush of adrenaline that came from being in the spotlight. When we reached the podium, Kirk stepped forward to take the microphone while I stood at his side, pressing my shoulder blades together, a smile plastered across my face. When the applause died down, Kirk began to speak, first thanking the co-chairs, their various committees, our fellow patrons, and all the donors. He then got to the reason we were here tonight, his voice growing somber. I stared at his strong profile, thinking how handsome he was.
“My wife, Nina, and I have a son named Finch,” he said. “Finch, like some of your children, will be graduating from high school in just a couple of months. In the fall, he will be headed off to college.”
I looked past the bright lights into a sea of faces as Kirk continued. “For the last eighteen years, our life has revolved around him. He is the most precious thing in the world to us,” he said, then halted, looked down, and took a few seconds to continue. “And I just can’t imagine the horror of losing him.”
I lowered my gaze, nodding in agreement, feeling a stab of overwhelming grief and compassion for every family devastated by suicide. But as Kirk went on to talk about the organization, my mind guiltily wandered back to our life, our son. All the opportunity that stretched ahead for him.
I tuned back in to hear my husband say, “So, in closing, Nina and I are so honored to join with you in this important cause. . . . This is a fight for all of our children. Thank you so much. And good night.”
As the crowd applauded once again, and a few of our closest friends actually stood for an ovation, Kirk turned and gave me a wink. He knew he’d nailed it.
“Perfect,” I whispered.
Only things were actually far from perfect.
Because at virtually that very moment, our son was across town, making the worst decision of his life.
Copyright © 2018 by Emily Giffin. Excerpted from Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.