All the Time in the World – When Dreams Are Put on Hold
All the Time in the World is the debut novel of Caroline Angell, Manhattan-based playwright and director. The story is evocative and engrossing. I devoured it. If you appreciate reading as well-developed characters experience and work through their almost-not-quite everyday problems, you too will devour this book. Emotions may run high: at least once I was still laughing at a wry quip when I started weeping!
Our main character and sole narrator Charlotte has been working as a nanny for the McLean family since shortly after she earned her master’s degree in music composition. After her graduation, a beloved professor stole some of Charlotte’s best work for a television show theme song. Distraught, discouraged, and disillusioned, Charlotte, who has up until this point enjoyed “constant, lifelong validation” (her musings, not mine) decides to take a break from her musical career progression until she figures out what to do next – maybe more music, maybe not. She starts nannying, caring for four year-old Matthew, and one year-old George, the loveable sons of Gretchen and Scotty McLean. Music takes a backseat in her life at this point, though she still has a great time writing up ukulele sing-alongs with her young charges.
Two years pass. Charlotte becomes an integral part of the McLean family. Then, Gretchen dies. This loss is the fulcrum of this novel. We follow Charlotte’s narrative as she reminisces and reflects on life Before, and we agonize with her as she struggles to deal with her own grief while supporting Gretchen’s family After.
Supporting characters include Gretchen’s family – husband Scotty, sons, parents and in-laws – as well as Charlotte’s own two sisters and an off-again sexual partner/once-fellow composer from college. Others flit through, adding dynamics without confusing the story. Every appearance deepens our understanding of the primary personalities or provides allegory to augment the themes of grief, loss, love and hope. There is an impressive lack of randomness in the story – every piece adds something.
All of the characters are lovingly crafted, drawn for the reader from Charlotte’s intuitive point of view. She is at the center of a maelstrom of emotion, not quite included in the McLean family but so much more than a babysitter, swept up in their needs. She is unable to break away, continuously justifying this commitment to her own family and self as Scotty especially begins to rely on her more and more.
One distinguishing characteristic of this novel is its alternating timeline, with each passage labelled by its length of time from Gretchen’s death: day before, one year before, three months after. It works surprisingly well. The forward/backward alternations encourage the reader to assemble the characters into whole beings; they are not only defined by their reactions to Gretchen’s passing since we also meet them before that point. However, the labelling convention for the parts is confusing. Each part (there are five, in a 300-page paperback) is named for a character, but does not focus on that character in any appreciable way. Charlotte continues to narrate. I ended up ignoring the convention, but I would like to know if other readers gleaned something I did not from those subtitles.
My biggest minor complaint is that I was frustrated a few times by incomprehension – there are a handful of passages where Charlotte does not add to the narrative with her own detailed interpretation of what others are thinking. In those cases I was left to guess at what she and others just understood. Charlotte’s analysis of events, facial expressions, and dialogue seems trustworthy, so it was a let-down when she didn’t ascribe motivation to the actions of other characters. Certainly there isn’t anything wrong with leaving some work for the reader, but I really appreciated Charlotte’s version of omniscience. It was jarring when it failed.
That aside, this is excellent realistic fiction. I laughed, I cried, and I recognized the importance of understanding that it is not always a negative if those dreams we set out to fulfill are waylaid. Our lives may simply become more rewarding and more important than our dreams could have ever been.
All the Time in the World
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