Review: All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin
“May God forgive me for this and all these things I’ve done.”
Looking at the books I’ve read the last year, dystopians have been the biggest bombs. Since everyone jumped on the futuristic, world-gone-to-pot bandwagon, there’s just not a lot of fresh, creative takes in the overly-saturated dystopian sub-genre.
As a result, when I bought Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done when it was a Kindle Daily Deal, my expectations were incredibly low, but I figured at a buck or two, it was a low-risk proposition.
I was surprised that All These Things I’ve Done—despite wildly disparate reviews from readers whose opinions I trust—was a fresh and compelling entry amidst a slew of uninspiring dystopian trilogies.
It’s the 2083 and Anya Balanchine, daughter of a notorious—and murdered—crime boss, spends her days trying to hold her fractured family together in a future New York City where commodities including chocolate, caffeine, paper and cotton are illegal or hard-to-obtain. At 16 Anya’s tasked with caring for her ailing grandmother (who’s her legal guardian) and her siblings, including her older brother who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of her family’s involvement in organized crime.
“I wasn’t an expert on the chocolate ban as it had happened before I was born, but there were definite similarities. Daddy had always told me that there was nothing inherently evil about chocolate, that it had gotten caught up in a larger whirlwind involving food, drugs, health, and money. Our country had only chosen chocolate because the people in power needed to pick something, and chocolate was what they could live without. Daddy once said, ‘Every generation spins the wheel, Anya, and where it lands defines ‘the good.’ Funny thing is, they never know that they’re spinning it, and it hits something different every time.’”
She works hard to keep herself out of trouble so she can legally care for her younger sister once her grandmother passes away from an extended illness. She’s prickly and unbending, which means she has very specific expectations of herself, her role in her family and how others must behave. She’s judgmental and not necessarily “relatable,” though she has wit and humor that made me root for her.
“The theme of the dance was “Great Romances,” or some such nonsense. There were projections of supposedly great couples from the past on the walls of the gym. Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Hermione and Ron, Bonnie and Clyde, etc. I don’t think most of them met a particularly good end, but I suspect this was an irony that entirely bypassed the event’s organizers.”
That changes her ex-boyfriend is poisoned by illegal chocolate she gave him. She’s quickly suspected of the crime and her carefully-managed life begins to unfurl.
“Triage was something I understood very well. It was the organizing principle of my entire life.”
Anya finds herself dragged into the underworld controlled by her extended family—this is, naturally, complicated further when she begins a flirtation and then relationship with the new Assistant District Attorney’s son, Win (Goodwin). While All These Things I’ve Done could have strayed into “yet another dystopian romance” territory at (looking at you Delirium/Matched/Etc), Zevin manages to create an unusual and gripping story in which the romance actually makes sense within the context of the world and the characters’ story arc.
The other thing that struck me about the romance between Anya and Win is that its progression is slow and thoughtful.
Again, this is where All These Things I’ve Done diverges from so many YA dystopian novels. We actually get to see their relationship progress from attraction to something bigger. And, Win is respectful of Anya and what she’s comfortable with in their relationship. She’s Catholic and her beliefs collide with what she wants out of her new boyfriend—it’s interesting and different.
“It’s not you I’m worried about, Win! It’s me!” It was embarrassing to talk about how much I feared losing control of myself when I was around him. I felt feral, savage, violent even, unlike myself. It disturbed me and shamed me. I hadn’t been to confession in months.
“I’m not a virgin, Annie. Do you think that means I’m going to Hell?” he asked.
“No, it’s more complicated than that.”
“Explain it, then.”
“You’ll think it’s stupid. You’ll think I’m provincial, superstitious.”
“No, I could never think that…”
I know some readers will be bothered by the numerous religious references in All These Things I’ve Done, but it’s important in terms of Anya’s character development and understanding the world her character lives in and how those beliefs are challenged by Win, the first person who really makes her examine her beliefs and possibly adjust her rigid expectations of herself and others.
All These Things I’ve Done is told in an unusual, reflective, past-tense memoir style that I think will be hit or miss for readers.
I really liked it. It creates a feeling that the narrator always knows a bit more than the reader, and she plays with the reader a bit.
“(NB: This is foreshadowing, dear readers—more and deeper humiliations to come … )”
On the other hand, it made me more conscious that I was reading a book, which meant I was never really absorbed in the novel until the fast-paced concluding chapters. (All These Things I’ve Done has an outstanding conclusion.) But like so much with this novel, the well-executed different feel to the writing compensated for this distraction.
All These Things I’ve Done is a dystopian that’s not going to work for everyone, but if you’ve had burnout from this sort of novel, it’s worth a try. It’s fresh and different and sometimes that’s more than enough to make for a worthwhile read. The last few chapters were so engaging that I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel, Because It Is My Blood.
FNL Character Rating: Tyra (Potential)
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