"No One Tells Everything"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUL 22, 2008)
“I think hotels do things to people. Allows them to do stuff they wouldn’t do on their own turf.”
Once in a while a book comes along that is a complete surprise. Reading the synopsis for No One Tells Everything, the second novel from author Rae Meadows doesn’t really give a hint of how marvelous this book is. Written with a clean, sharp style and sparse prose, the plot negotiates familiar, charted territory, but the author steadily avoids the banality of clichés, and the result is a novel that is a small, well-crafted, subtle and deceptively simple tale.
The novel’s protagonist is a 35-year-old woman named Grace. Originally from Ohio, she’s lived in New York for thirteen years, and here she works as a copy editor in a dead end job. Grace functions as a “glorified proofreader,” and she simultaneously “envies the writers and feels disdain for them; she doesn’t think they’re doing anything she couldn’t do. It’s just that she got stuck.” Grace is left with just the small satisfaction of directing niggling criticisms at the authors of the articles she proofs. Occasionally spurred on to apply for other, better jobs, generally Grace lacks the energy to do anything about her life. She’s had a long-term affair with a married professor who’s decided to return to his wife. Even though the affair was unsatisfactory, realizing that “she is a rest stop, an intermission, a pause” in her ex-lover’s life leads to even more dissatisfaction and isolation. Grace spends her evenings bored and alone in Chances, the local bar, and the observant bartender, with his years of listening to tales of woe from patrons, stands in for whatever relationships are missing from Grace’s life. The book opens in the bar, with Grace sitting sipping wine and half-heartedly watching the television news report regarding the case of a missing beautiful young co-ed, Sarah Shafer.
There’s something about Sarah’s story that sucks Grace in, and when Sarah’s body finally surfaces, Grace becomes increasingly interested in the crime. It seems like an open-and-shut case with one of Sarah’s rebuffed admirers arrested for the savage murder. Grace becomes fascinated with the case and with the accused murderer, Charles Raggatt, the damaged son of an affluent Ohio family.
At first No One Tells Everything seems to veer in the direction of crime solving, but this fine novel avoids the expected and the ordinary and focuses instead on Grace--a difficult and complex protagonist. Convinced that Raggatt is innocent, Grace returns to her home in Ohio in order to see what she can discover about the murder. Her fascination and bizarre interest in Raggatt makes little sense to Grace’s parents. Grace’s father distances himself by wandering around in a disconnected haze, and Grace’s mother appears--at least on the surface--to be fairly content with life. But there’s rot underneath these fragile relationships. Haunted by the death of her younger sister, Grace has avoided returning home for years. Seething with resentment that her parents’ favourite daughter died in childhood, over time Grace has become emotionally blunted, and choosing isolation, she’s unable to develop relationships. With a tendency towards self-loathing and casual sex, Grace avoids relationships that require anything from her: “without her shell of detachment she fears she risks wandering the barren plains of ordinariness.” Oddly enough Grace forms a relationship with Raggatt as he awaits trial. She connects with him in ways she is unable to connect with anyone else, and perhaps this is due partly because he expects nothing and wants nothing in return.
Grace’s return to her family home precipitates a crisis of sorts, and the family scenes in the novel ring with a painful clarity and precision truth. But while the author makes it clear that Grace’s family is dysfunctional, the novel once again avoids those tired paths of navel-gazing, chest-beating guilt exposure, and instead we see Grace’s parents as flawed people who are simply trying to survive and deal with their lives--no matter how painful, no matter how disappointing.
While the novel’s plot is loaded with potential emotional bombshells, what’s so interesting here is that these fail to explode, and instead the author’s understated, subtle style mirrors Grace’s blunted emotions. The plot covers some emotional territory: the death of a child, the murder of a young woman, and yet the author avoids exploiting these situations simply by not making them the focus of the narrative. Grace’s family, for example, is dysfunctional, but the novel seems to take a "so what" approach to dysfunctionality. After all, families aren’t necessarily all that they’re cracked up to be, and the novel seems to ask, whose family isn’t dysfunctional these days? The book’s scenes of the emotional explosions during Grace’s visits home are not portrayed as a necessary catharsis, but by their very reality, they are very natural, anticlimactic occurrences.
I recently finished a novel I did not enjoy for its excessive emotional content. Mini emotional hiccups supplemented major emotional crises, and after a while all this upheaval smacked of fabrication used to move the plot along. Frankly I’m impressed that the author with just one prior book to her credit produced a novel of this complexity and this quality. Rae Meadows managed to write such an exquisitely painful novel without squeezing every possible emotional scenario for what it’s worth, and instead the author places Grace--a very real, a very flawed woman at the heart of the novel. This is a quiet, refreshing tale that surprises the reader for the things that don’t happen. Excellent.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- MostlyFiction.com interview with Rae Meadows
- The Onion review of Calling Out
- Curled Up review of No One Tells Everything
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About the Author:
Rae Meadows is a graduate of Stanford University and the MFA program at the University of Utah. Her novel Calling Out received the 2006 Utah Book Award for fiction and was named one of the best books of 2006 by The Chicago Tribune. Her stories have appeared in various literary magazines, most recently in Avery. She lives with her husband and daughter in Madison, Wisconsin.