Stiff, pompous, self-satisfied and narrow-minded men seldom feature as protagonists of stories. But then this is hardly his story. On the face of it, anyway.
Professor Nicholas Van Tassel first spots Etna Bliss at the scene of a fire. And it is a fair measure of the man that even as fire devoured a building he’d been in mere moments ago, he notices that harassed looking woman holding a child as she stares at the inferno unable to find a way to escape from it. And that even the child in her arms doesn’t keep him from lusting after her. Or maybe, that’s just human nature? Of course he claims the incident to be a testimony to how obsessed he was to be with Etna Bliss. I think it was just proof of the blatant self-pandering we would witness through the story.
Anita Shreve’s ‘All He Ever Wanted’ is the story of one man and his obsession with a woman. Told in Van Tassel’s own words it documents his efforts to … perhaps, acquire, would be the best word … Etna Bliss and keep her in his life.
Even right at the beginning the relationship doesn’t promise him any rewards. From the night of the fire when he helps her get home, thereby also procuring a means to be invited into the house and his subsequent dogged pursual of her, the tone of the relationship is not a pleasant one. Even he admits that he’s unsure whether she actually prefers his company or it’s merely a combination of good manners and lack of options that propels her there but he’s not one to let such an opportunity pass by. Indeed, he’s the kind of man for whom almost no depth seems too low and there seems to be hardly an action that isn’t self-serving.
And it would be a wonder if you haven’t already guessed at my distaste of Nicholas Van Tassel. But I really can’t help it! It was hard for me to like the character. And therefore hard to enter into his cloying, obsessive feelings for her. Of course, you sympathise with him at certain junctures in the story though you can’t help but feel like he asked for it.
But in spite of all this, the doomed love story, if we may call it that, makes for a fairly compelling read. The story of a woman in a marriage of convenience, of a man who hopes (and sometimes actually manages to convince himself) it has turned to love and that of everybody else who gets caught in between his desire and reality and suffers for it. I’d give it a 3.