Nicholas Van Tassel met the woman of his dreams during a hotel fire in the winter of 1899. From that moment, he pursued Etna Bliss with the solitary goal of marriage on his mind. Their courtship proves difficult, as Etna does not return his love.
Professor Van Tassel feels his position as Cornish Professor of English Literature and Rhetoric at New Hampshire's Thrupp College is enough to attract Etna's affection and ensure a happy life together so he proposes marriage. After an uncomfortable reluctance, Etna agrees while openly honest about her lack of feelings for Nicholas.
Nicholas narrates the story through an essay he writes thirty years later. Readers know early in the novel that the marriage occurred and abruptly ended. The story of Nicholas and Etna's courtship and union is told in All He Ever Wanted.
Professor Van Tassel is a pompous man who likes to analyze every scene in which he is involved. Shreve lets him set the pace for the tale. It's clear he's deeply in love with Etna. Her rejection drives readers to pity Nicholas at first, though reactions will change as the story moves forward.
The demise of the marriage is revealed in the beginning of All He Ever Wanted. The reason for the separation is clear, though the professor's last acts of desperation are surprising. One can only wonder if Etna's version of the story would be entirely different.
Shreve is a gifted author whose captivating storytelling is revealed in the subtleties of her characters. This novel doesn't have the strong-willed heroine like Fortune's Rocks or a big bombshell like the one dropped in Last Time They Met. Impatient readers (including yours truly) may struggle with the pace. Rest assured the drama is in the detail. Reading slowly and carefully enhances enjoyment of the tale.
As with most Shreve novels, All He Ever Wanted makes a fantastic group discussion book. There are many angles from which the story can be analyzed. One word of caution: some of the professional reviews at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com reveal too much of this book's plot. Tread carefully while reading reviews so you can discover All He Ever Wanted on your own.