Tuesday, July 19, 2016

All the Time in the World

by Caroline Angell
Henry Holt and Company     2016
324 pages     Fiction 

All the Time in the World is the exceptional first novel by a talented young author, Caroline Angell. It tells the story of a young woman, Charlotte, who has finished a master's degree in music composition but is now working as a nanny for two young boys, George and Matthew McLean, who are the children of Gretchen and Scotty McLean, wealthy New Yorkers. 

A gifted musician, babysitting wasn't in her career plans, but a betrayal by one of her trusted instructors has put Charlotte's career on hold. She falls in love with George and Matthew and finds her employment to be satisfying, although a bit stifling. She considers the job to be good for now; it pays for her life in the city. In the first few pages of the novel, the mother, Gretchen, dies in a taxi accident, and Charlotte's role in the family takes a significance that she had not imagined. The narrative moves backward and forward in time from her first days as the nanny to the day that Gretchen dies to the weeks and months following the tragedy. Charlotte remains as the stabilizing force in the children's lives because Scotty is barely functional. Charlotte's help is what keeps the family going for several months, until the exhaustion of being everyone's everything takes its toll on her well-being. I was impressed that Angell understood the effects of grief for all the family members as well as for Charlotte.

Angell gets a lot of things right. Having just come from a week with grandchildren of the same age, I was impressed that Angell understands the life and times of preschoolers so well, with all the minutia of child care. George and Matthew are very appealing children, and their confusion and grief when their mother dies is heartbreaking. George is too little to really understand what has happened, but as a 5-year-old, Matthew descends into a combative mess that Caroline has to manage every day. 

Angell has used her own experience as a music student, composer, and nanny to form the basis of her novel. But more than that, she draws upon a deep and intuitive understanding of death and grief as it plays out in the lives of a family with young children. The characters are all believable, and their reactions are realistic and relatable. Charlotte is a very sympathetic character. I loved her innate understanding of children and their needs, and I liked how she matured when she was called upon to keep the family functioning. I also appreciated the way she led Scotty through his grief and helped him find a path to wholeness.

 This novel could easily have been based on the experience of our Downey family—albeit the Downey experience occurred more than 30 years ago, when Lee, the father in our family, died of cancer. Little 2-year-old Rachel had no understanding of what was happening, but her brothers and I experienced a grief that lasted for a long time. The depiction of Scotty, the father, is quite true to my experience—a fog that gradually lifted.

I think that it would have been easy for Angell to have tied this novel up in a neat little bundle, like The Sound of Music, with Charlotte marrying her employer and everyone living happily ever after. I was proud of her for not descending to a formulaic ending. The conclusion was far more satisfying. 

As an aside, one detail that I found amusing was about Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk that lives on the facade of a building across from Central Park. My book club had read Red Tails in Love by Marie Winn, so I was familiar with Pale Male. I felt quite smug about knowing that!

As you can tell, All the Time in the World hit fairly close to home for me, bringing back many memories that had laid buried. I did get a bit bogged down in the back and forth of the narration and a lot of details about child care, but I persisted and in the end, I was glad that I did. All the Time in the World is true and heartfelt—it didn't feel like a first novel. Kudos to Caroline Angell.

Caroline Angell's website.
Here is a YouTube video of a review by a young British woman.

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