Monday, July 18, 2016
Book Review: All the Time in the World
Disney has helped popularize well-used tropes about evil stepmothers. Romance flips that trope on its head, utilizing the caring young woman – often a nanny, but not always – who comes into the life of a widower and his children, quickly mends their broken hearts, and then becomes a loving, devoted stepmother. Guitar and curtain-clothes are a bonus, but not required.
In her debut novel, All the Time in the World, author Caroline Angell tears apart that romantic fantasy with an ease that belies her first-time status. Her protagonist, composer-turned-nanny Charlotte, may be Maria Von Trapp mixed with Mary Poppins. But children with dead mothers need a lot more than songs, and this book details how crushing and overwhelming their grief can be. Romance under these circumstances would feel completely inappropriate.
Angell moves back and forth through time in the novel, and reveals on the first page that Gretchen, Charlotte’s employer, dies. She then moves back to establish Charlotte, who has a master’s degree in music composition and is smarting from learning that Jess, a teacher whom she idolized, stole her work and used it in a TV theme. While the rest of Charlotte’s class is moving onto successful music careers, including her sometime-boyfriend Everett, Charlotte is paralyzed, and ends up accepting a nanny job with very wealthy Upper-East-Siders Gretchen and Scotty McLean, helping Gretchen take care of their two pre-school boys, Matt and George. Scotty is a lawyer who comes from serious old wealth; if Gretchen’s career prior to motherhood was mentioned, I did not note it. But these two are not another Mr. and Mrs. X from the Nanny Diaries. Scotty is obsessed with work, but he is also clearly devoted to Gretchen and the boys. And Gretchen is perfect. (Perhaps Angell was trying to avoid stereotypes around Upper East Side parents, and over-corrected.)
The novel has two weaknesses, and one of them is that both Gretchen and Charlotte are practically perfect. Sometimes Gretchen may have a sharp word for Scotty, but she’s quick to apologize and explain her thoughts and feelings to her husband and children. And she is overwhelmingly grateful for Charlotte, constantly thanking her and paying her huge amounts of money. Charlotte, as well, is the nanny a woman can only dream of having. Not only does she never lose patience with Matt and George – whose pre-school boyness is precisely and accurately rendered – she never even has a cross thought about the boys. She’s always on time, can always stay late, is never tardy in picking up the boys from school. Her only flaw – which isn’t even a flaw – is that for a woman in her late 20s, she’s living a life more appropriate for someone several years younger, and at times that makes her seem younger than her actual age.
The second weakness is that Angell spends too much time on the pre-death minutiae of the kids’ daily lives. (This book is a great gift for anyone who asks the question, “What did you do all day,” to someone with young kids.) The preschool pick up and various catty moms; the food challenges, the “witching hour” meltdowns are all dissected in great detail. Angell is a gifted writer, and I could tell she was trying to show, not tell, what a terrific nanny Charlotte was, how well she understood the children, and how important she was to their lives. But a little can go a long way for a talented writer, and a stronger editor could have helped rein her in a bit.
Other than Jess, who only appears briefly, the villain in the piece seems to be Scotty’s brother Patrick, a womanizer who never misses an opportunity to remind Scotty that he dated Gretchen (once) before he did. With Charlotte in his brother’s camp, Patrick covets her, and it’s a mystery why Charlotte tolerates his boorishness as much as she does.
Amazon advertises the book as “about a young woman's choice between the future she's always imagined and the people she's come to love,” but it’s not as clear cut as that. Charlotte doesn’t really have a specific option for a future other than remaining the boys’ nanny; without a firm choice, her dilemma is less clear. Still, without that choice, the unsettling notion that Charlotte could spend the rest of her life taking care of another woman’s family remains ominously out there.
Angell is a gifted writer, and her command of prose is quite sophisticated. All the Time in the World does not read like a debut, which holds great promise for her future offerings. I am looking forward to them.
Thanks to FSB Associates for the book in exchange for an honest review.