All He Ever Wanted - Anita Shreve All He Ever Wanted begins with a hotel fire in the early 1900’s. The narrator of the story is recounting his past while en route to his sister’s funeral. Bachelor Nicholas Van Tassel is a stuffy professor at a snotty boys' school who is inside the hotel when the blaze begins but leaves unscathed. During this tragedy where twenty people perish in a fiery death he meets the woman of his dreams Etna Bliss.

Etna’s “handsome” face, her lovely waist and her other womanly attributes haunt his every thought. Even her name, Bliss, brings lusty thoughts to his mind and starts my skin to crawling. His infatuation is all consuming and before long he pursues her with all of the gusto of a starving dog drooling over a choice bit of meat. She eventually agrees to a date where he learns, a bit to his dismay, that she has a brain as well as fine breasts and is surprisingly literate. They read stories together and seem to get along well enough but when he makes a move or turns the conversation towards the personal she immediately gives him the cold shoulder. I should add that Nicholas is described as the most un-athletic man on earth with a slight paunch and a balding pate. The sexual attraction seems entirely one-sided and a bit creepy. At this point I would’ve put the book aside unfinished as I found Nicholas Van Tassel boring beyond belief and far too pompous for his own good. However, since I was listening to this in its unabridged format and I was stuck in traffic I continued to torture myself with Nicholas Van Tassel’s words (expertly read by a narrator who reads in a purposely haughty way).

Despite the fact that Etna does not return his feelings of undying love he insists that they marry and, oddly enough, she agrees. Thus begins their awkward life together. During their years of marriage they parent two children which, thankfully, we are spared the oogey details of their sterile love making. Thank you Mr. Van Tassel for speedily skipping by those bits and saving me a few shudders! They seem to get along decently enough as they plod along through their days. Nicholas gives Etna a nice life and the freedom to do whatever she wishes but sadly the love Nicholas aches for is never returned by Etna. Nicholas, the poor love starved sap, is grateful just to have her as his wife and doesn’t complain about her complete lack of affection towards him. But things begin to change when he discovers that Etna has been hiding things from him. This is where the book finally picked up and actually engaged my full attention.

At this point Nicholas almost becomes a sympathetic character though he is still remains a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. He is riddled with insecurities and although he has been married to a woman he cherished for years he will never be a happy or successful man. His world begins to spiral out of control as he simultaneously discovers Etna’s been keeping secrets and learns the position he’s been longing to have at the University may be forever out of his reach.

Nicholas’s festering jealously and over-reaction to Etna’s secret -- which was odd but not nearly as devastatingly earth-shattering as I’d anticipated -- ruins any smidgen of pity I may have felt for him just a few chapters earlier. Author Shreve successfully paints an unpleasant picture of a thoroughly unpleasant man caught up in a situation of his own making. Reading Nicolas Van Tassel’s vitriolic comments and actions for pages on end was a depressing experience that I won’t be repeating any time soon.