Review: All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Title:  All These Things I've Done

Author:  Gabrielle Zevin

Publisher:  FSG (Farrar, Strauss, and Gerraux)

Series:  Birthright #1

Other Reviews for This Author:  None

Literary YA can be fabulous - see Melina Marchetta's amazing Jellicoe Road - but it can fall flat, too.  There's a lot of danger writing literary fiction in general because of how gosh-darn-dull it can become.  All These Things I've Done is a novel that immediately struck me as being of the more literary end of YA.  Yes, there is a love story.  Yes, this is a dystopian/futuristic/ect. type of novel.  But it's all quiet.  This book is not a rock band but a sound machine, and depending on the reader it can either make a strong impression or fall flat. For me, it was a mixture of the two.  I found the book enjoyable and could appreciate the way Zevin's skilled writing made the book hard to put down, but on the whole its reaction with me was far more subdued than I would have liked.

For Anya Balanchine, organized crime isn't a simple reality engaged on classic films like The Godfather.  Mobsters have been around for decades, and the Balanchine family is more than slightly notorious for their reputation as being one of the biggest and most prominent in the world.  Things have changed since the days of Al Capone.  The Balanchine can't make their fortune off of just anything, and they don't have the Roaring Twenties backing up their ever-increasing endeavors to sell goods on the black market to the highest bidders.  The future has seen the world into entirely new problems that can't be solved by escaping into the realm of flappers and anti-prohibition-booze.

The Balanchines are in it for the chocolate.  Chocolate, caffeine, and other substances have since become illegal over the years, and the Balanchine family has had to adjust to it in order to maintain business.  They've developed international contacts - especially considering other countries don't have chocolate prohibited - and become a crime family worthy of their title and reputation.  The only problem is that a crime family's title and reputation comes at a cost.  Anya has lived without her father around for several years because of this cost.  This cost has caused her brother to be brain damaged and has caused her mother to die.  With just her brother, her dying grandmother, Anya is quite alone in the world.  No matter that she has other family working towards the business end of the Balanchine empire.  She wants no part in it.

Anya can't escape her birthright.  Her uncle and cousins are slowly courting her brother - offering him the opportunity to do some simple and perfectly legal jobs for the Balanchine family facility.  It doesn't sit well with Anya.  She knows her family's motives better than anyone, and they are rarely clean and anything other than self-serving.  There's also the predicament of her personal life at school.  Anya's boyfriend is a chocolate addict, and in a fit of rage he nearly rapes her.  Immediately breaking up with him, Anya has to deal with intense backlash at school.  A new student could potentially help her heart heal, but he's the son of one of the most prominent public officials in the city.  A boy like him could never date a mob daughter.  With a murder, a motive, and the beginnings of legal unrest, Anya cannot escape the Balanchine name...even if it kills her.

The reader reaction to Anya will either be one of adoration or neutrality.  I can see how people would love her character; Zevin is a literary craftsman in regards to making a very realistic and mature young adult character who has had to grow up earlier than one would expect.  Anya is strong-willed and calculating.  She's the kind of person who can play their life like a game of chess.  For those that find the current crop of YA characters lack-luster and stupid, Anya will be a refresher.  In many ways she reads like an adult character with a young-adult age.  It's all in her actions and the way she separates her emotions from the story in order to get the heart of the world around her and what's going on.  There is a huge downside to this: I felt completely unconnected with Anya.  I enjoyed the book well enough, but there was nothing there worthy of getting excited about.  Anya's narrative feels closed off and cold.  Her personality isn't very accessible, and it doesn't feel like she breaks into intimacy enough as a narrator to warrant making the reader invest themselves in the story. Sure, she had unique insights and activities, and she had a good voice to her, but there wasn't a feeling of connection or personalization to her as a character.  I am probably in the minority with these feelings, but that problem is one that stuck with me for a while after reading the book, and I usually remember a more emotional reaction on my part towards the protagonist of the story.

The other characters were equally interesting and memorable enough, but via Anya's narration I felt a decided lack of intensity in the characters and their progressions in the story.    Leo, Anya's brother, was one of my favorite characters.  His progression was better than most, and it was nice to see a character who had mental issues in a YA novel.  I don't feel like that comes up prominently enough, and it was cool to see it played out.  I would have liked to see him have more depth, but I enjoyed that he was attempting to assert his independence and take care of his family because of the strain on Anya, but it's obvious via the narrative that Anya's the only capable one in the family to do so.  Anya's best friend Scarlet was another figure that held interest, although she wasn't explored as much as I would have liked.  She had a personality that was quirky and off-set Anya's seriousness, but I wanted more exploration in regards to her relationship with Anya and her budding romance with Anya's abusive ex-boyfriend.  The love interest was par for the course, but much more in the sense that he's a solid guy than in the dark-and-brooding sense YA has quite often.  Win comes with natural relationship conflict because of his parentage, and the chemistry he has with Anya in the pages is telling enough, but there's just a lack of something at some points. I felt that way with many of the characters - strong personality types and images come to mind with them, but they didn't do much in the way of changing or being dynamic like I  would have liked them to.

On to Zevin's writing style.  Zevin's writing is really wonderful, and I think it's one of the reasons why she's so highly lauded.  I have never read her books before, but there's something about this one that just screams an author who understands their tone and the ability to make a book seem more than what it is.  Zevin is excellent at writing a believable protagonist in a world that makes sense.  She creates very accurate parallels between her book's version of the future and the 1920's Prohibition period, and it makes the book almost feel like it could take place today.  Things are just subtly off and feel like they've grown organically from our present day.  There's nothing so fantastical that it seems beyond comprehension, and sometimes I like my dystopian/futuristic books to be like that: so real that they could happen in the next five or ten years.  While Zevin's world is great, she takes too long to reveal it to the reader.  A lot happens in this book without actually happening.  Most of it feels like set-up (albeit good set-up) for events in later books.  There's a lot of political intrigue, familial questioning, and the like.  Zevin does well with making things interesting and unique in her world, and the grounding of everything kept the seemingly mundane events from losing importance because of how real the world was.  As solid as the construction is, though, it doesn't make up for how little progression of any sort came into play.

There's a divide in my mind with All These Things I've Done.  On one hand, it has strong world-building and writing that is very polished and worth a read on its own.  However, the prose and technicality couldn't make up for a very apparent lack of plot progression and a main character that I didn't connect with.  This is a book that I wouldn't say I'm sorry I read - I still enjoyed it, after all - and is one that I would possibly see to the second book, but isn't one I would suggest to readers who look for a dystopian with highly emotional or plot-driven elements.

Cover:  THIS COVER IS AWESOME.  It is abstract, unusual, gives the reader a lot to be interested in about the book, and is not just another girl's face cover.

Rating:  3.0  Stars

Copy:  Received from publisher/publicist for review  (Thank you, Zeitghost Media and FSG!)

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Karen said...

That is exactly how I felt about this book. A great concept but it didn't feel very dystopian to me. I also enjoyed the characters but other than Leo I didn't really care all that much either way.
Great review.

Beth Kephart said...

gosh, this is one intelligent review, John. thank you for this. so much to consider with this one.

wishing you happiness today.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm sorry to hear this book didn't quite hit the mark for you.

I read Zevin's Elsewhere and enjoyed it--this one intrigues me based on the setting, since it was really interesting in her other book.

Loraine said...

Nice review you have! ;D

Here's mine if you don't mind:

Thank you and have a nice day!!!!!! =)