Alex and Thea look like they have everything they could possibly need at their disposal. After all, they live in Camelot, thanks to Prince Arthur, their mother’s new husband. He oozes money. But money doesn’t buy everything and money maybe doesn’t buy anything in Adele Griffin’s All You Never Wanted.
Alex always had popularity. She was the IT girl. She was the older sister. The one who always succeeded without trying. But now that she’s been thrust into this new life with a new step father and money, she doesn’t feel happy. In fact, she feels like she’s losing a huge grip on reality. Even though she’s privileged to have everything handed to her, she doesn’t like it. Her father’s connections enabled Alex to take on an amazing internship at a well-known magazine. It bores her to some extent, so when she’s given a huge opportunity to do something big at the magazine, she’s almost excited. She’d, in a way, earned that opportunity herself.
Except — and this paragraph is spoiler — Alex ruins it all when she finds herself so nervous and overwhelmed that she pees herself, right there, in front of so many people. It’s a mortifying moment to her, and it’s a mortifying moment to readers as they realize how horrifying and painful something like that could be for someone, especially a teenager. More than that, though, to Alex this is somehow proof that she doesn’t deserve this internship and that indeed, it is only her stepfather’s connections that got it for her. Her own body rejects this. It’s after this moment when Alex changes significantly as a person. She becomes very removed from her own life, and she instead fixates her control over her own body’s functions by not eating.
Thea, on the other hand, is the younger sister. She’s always looked up to Alex, and she’s always yearned for part of what Alex has had in terms of popularity. So when her mother and stepdad are out of town, Thea wants to throw the biggest, most talked about party in Greenwich and invite everyone she wants to be friends with to it. This will ensure her a place on the popularity ladder, of course, especially because now that she’s rich, she’s earned it. Thea also has a little bit of a lying habit. Or maybe lying isn’t the right word for it. She’s a story teller, and she loves the way that embellishing a tale gets her more attention, even if it’s not necessarily for the right reasons. Because, see, money. It will solve anything for her if it has to. But in the midst of this, there’s also the boy Thea wants. It’s not just any boy, though. It happens to be Josh.
And he’s Alex’s boyfriend.
All You Never Wanted is told through both Alex’s perspective and Thea’s. But it’s not exactly that straightforward, either. Thea’s story is told through first person. We know exactly what she’s thinking and what her motivations are. In fact, it’s pretty clear the entire reason that Thea’s story is in first person is because of how much she is dying to be First Person. Alex’s perspective in the story, though, is not told the same way Thea’s is. Hers is told through a third person limited point of view, so we actually get very little insight into her. It feels as though Alex’s story is removed from the reader’s mind all together, and this, too, makes perfect sense. With how much Alex is removed from her own life, it is only natural she’s also removed from Thea’s and from the reader’s. This shift in perspective and point of view is jarring to read, and it takes quite a while to sink into the writing because of this, but Griffin is masterful in what she does on a grander level by choosing this style of story telling.
What looks like a story about power and money and sibling rivalry is even deeper than that, though, which is why I think this book has the potential to get some serious attention — there’s a great post over at the Someday My Printz blog to talk a little more in depth about that. This is a relatively short book, clocking in at about 220 pages, but it is packed. And the longer I let this book settle in my mind, the more there is to unravel.
Thea is a thoroughly unlikable character, but that doesn’t mean she’s not sympathetic. In fact, I think her unlikable factors are what make her sympathetic all together: she wants what she cannot have, and it comes from being the younger sister to a girl who has always had it. The money factor, for Thea, is the key to overcoming this. Except, we know it’s not from the outside and Thea herself seems to know this, too, which is why she develops a story telling alter ego named Gia. I don’t toss the word around lightly, but Thea is a bit of a pathetic character, and it’s obvious to everyone, including herself and the reader.
Alex, on the other hand, despite being so hard to read, is easier to like. Beyond the fact she rejects the privilege and beyond the fact she’s carrying this horrifically embarrassing secret as her shame, Alex is a volunteer for a local organization that helps other people get through tough times. It’s here she meets Xander, a boy who shows her that she can enjoy herself (and her body) for no other reason than it’s what she’s allowed to do as a person. As good as Xander is for Alex on that level, he shows her something else, too: that sometimes people are just jerks and that’s how it goes. See, Alex has been mentoring someone at the organization whose dream is to become a weatherman. All she wants to do is let this boy meet his hero, the local weatherman. But despite how much Alex tries to get in touch with this guy, he keeps rejecting her. And Alex refuses to pull her connections to make this meeting happen, knowing that those connections left her feeling empty herself. She wants so much to help another person and to make them happy for no other reason than she wants to do it.
I haven’t talked much about Josh and his role in the sibling rivalry because for me, it was one of the less interesting elements of the story. Griffin’s book is really a study in character, and while he’s an impetus for this, there’s not really a romantic flavor to the story as a whole. Rather, he’s a tool to see how far Thea will go to get what she wants and he’s a tool for Alex to realize that there are better people out there who will love her for her and her flaws. I also have talked a whole lot about the ways that Alex and Thea work through their own challenges with one another. That’s because, well, it’s a sibling story and the way it’s resolved is, I think, very smart. One of these girls is driving the car and the other isn’t, but it’s not necessarily the way it’s written down in the book (oh the metaphor of the car and the driver and the five minutes here and afar here are so, so smart).
All You Never Wanted is not necessarily a fast-paced read, despite being short. The changing in perspective and the writing itself are literary markers. But, being literary doesn’t detract from how much teen appeal there is in this title. What Griffin does that few seem to be doing anymore is posing this novel around really teen problems. There’s nothing huge that happens, nothing superbly earth-shattering. There is a shift in family. There is a gain of status through wealth. But this story isn’t necessarily about that. It’s about sisters and about popularity and about what it means when you don’t feel like you fit in anymore. More than that, the way this book zooms in on a one-time embarrassing moment like Alex’s at the internship is absolutely authentic and realistic to the teen experience. This is Alex’s biggest shame in her life — as adults, we look at something like this and think shake it off, but for a teenager, it’s absolutely the worst thing in the world that could happen to them. And that it’s then wrapped up in the privilege, in the way your body can betray you and at times feel like a foreign object. Then there is the entire party subplot and what Thea does that sends Alex reeling. Again, it’s a small detail but it has huge consequences for the story and their relationship on a grander level.
This is a smart little book. I’m disappointed it hasn’t gotten more attention because this is one that will stick with readers long past its conclusion.
Pass All You Never Wanted off to readers who like stories of power and privilege, but who are looking for something literary and thought-provoking. The patience pays off in this read. Readers who love Sara Zarr or Siobhan Vivian’s complex and challenging characters will be rewarded here.
All You Never Wanted is available now. Reviewed from a library copy.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).