All These Things I've Done
Gabrielle Zevin is both versatile and talented. From writing the screenplay to the wickedly clever Conversations with Other Women to penning a novel (ELSEWHERE) whose conception of the afterlife beats THE LOVELY BONES in my book, she's proven again and again that she can tell compelling, honest stories that will appeal to thoughtful audiences. Most of all, Zevin excels at two things: social satire (as in her novel for adults, THE HOLD WE'RE IN) and love stories (including one of my all-time favorites, MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC). Now, Zevin brings together these two particular strengths in ALL THESE THINGS I'VE DONE, the first volume in a projected trilogy.
The book is set in a futuristic dystopian New York City in the year 2083. Chocolate and caffeine are both illegal --- although anyone can have alcohol, even teenagers --- water and paper are rationed, and crime and poverty are the norms. Even the familiar landscapes of New York --- from Central Park to the Statue of Liberty to the Metropolitan Museum of Art --- are run down, unrecognizable and even dangerous. As readers, though, we don't really know what catastrophe or series of events have led to this dire state of affairs --- a choice on Zevin's part that makes the whole atmosphere, especially her characters' matter-of-fact attitude toward their world --- even more unsettling.
At the center of the novel is 16-year-old Anya Balanchine, daughter of Leonyd Balanchine, formerly the most notorious mafiya boss in the United States. The head of Balanchine Chocolate Company, Leonyd also oversaw the country's most notorious crime family, until his murder several years earlier --- while Anya and her younger sister Natty were in the room. Natty, who is fragile on the outside but may possess hidden talents, still suffers from nightmares in the wake of her father's death. As for Anya's older brother Leo, he suffered brain damage when their mother was murdered while driving him in the family car. Anya is left to hold the family together, including not only her damaged siblings but also her elderly grandmother, who is being kept alive by breathing machines in the family apartment on the Upper East Side.
Her father’s words of advice are Anya's constant companions, even though she's made a deliberate choice to distance herself from her mafiya roots and thereby keep her immediate family safe. But when her bullying ex-boyfriend suffers a severe case of poison after eating Balanchine family contraband chocolate, Anya is at the center of ripples of suspicion that will have larger --- even deadly --- consequences down the road. Meanwhile, Anya is trying not to admit that she's falling for Win Delacroix, the new boy at school and the son of the new Assistant D.A. Could a love affair be more star-crossed than the one between the daughter of the city's most notorious criminal and the son of its chief prosecutor?
Win and Anya's romance unfolds gradually and completely convincingly, despite the extreme circumstances in which it unravels. Anya's deliberately stoic demeanor gradually breaks down, just as her world does, and she finds herself experiencing raw emotions --- not just toward Win but also toward her siblings and grandmother --- that she never would have acknowledged before: "I felt light-headed and breathless and like I might throw up. My chest was tight and I wanted to punch the wall. I realized that this was love, and it was awful."
Gabrielle Zevin's novel is both romantic and down-to-earth, even as it explores a future world that is, on some level, not so far off from our own. This first volume in the so-called Birthright trilogy sets into motion the pieces of a truly epic drama and a love story that will have readers clamoring to discover how they fit together in the end.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 4, 2011