Everything You Know

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Everything You Know By Zoe Heller, book reviewWilly Muller has problems. His elder daughter hates him, his sister’s not a fan, his girlfriends (yep, plural) want to change him and his agent is hassling him to work on a screen-play of his old best-seller ‘To Have and to Hold’, a rather tasteless account of how he killed his wife – or perhaps he didn’t. He was found guilty at his first trial, served time in Wormwood Scrubs before being released on appeal, basing his defence on claims that his wife Oona was an alcoholic. Willy should have hit a turning point in his life as a result of a heart attack but unlike many who recover from a life threatening event determined to make more of their lives and to live every day, Willy seems to have just lost his interest in life.

His agent has sent him to Mexico to recuperate and to work on the screenplay and Willy’s taken the younger of his two girlfriends, freckly Karen, with him but Karen’s thirty odd years younger than him and wants a lot more sex than a man with a bad heart can deliver. When his elder girlfriend, perfectly preserved Penny, turns up unexpectedly with a couple of his friends, Willy expects the fur to fly. To make life even more complex his utterly revolting old buddy Harry rolls up to spend his days in an alcoholic stupor, offending their landlady, calling Willy’s film-maker client nasty names and upsetting the maid by peeing his bed. Against this backdrop of aimless chaos we read the story of Willy’s younger daughter Sadie.

Three months earlier Sadie killed herself with mogadons and paracetamol crushed into Bailey’s Irish Cream. Before committing her final act, Sadie parcelled up her journals, dating back to her childhood just after her mother’s death when she and her sister Sophie were living with their aunt Monika whilst Willy was in prison. Hers is a childhood of therapists and analysts, curious strangers eyeing the girls suspiciously, rejection of their middle class upbringing and living in squats with her precocious sister and an assortment of drop outs and wasters. Her life of struggle and her search for love is told through diary extracts which are intercut with her father’s present day problems and we as readers flip back and forth between Willy’s manipulative girlfriend and Sadie’s exploitative married-man lover.

You can be forgiven for thinking it all sounds a bit bland and in the hands of the wrong writer it easily could be a dull read. Zoe Heller is a writer I’ve followed since she wrote columns in the Sunday supplements about her life as an ex-pat Brit in the USA. I wanted her to be Joseph Heller’s daughter, but she’s not and as far as I can tell there’s no familial connection between her and the older Heller but somehow she’s a natural at writing from the point of view of a jaded, disappointed older man of German Jewish – British background, who’s not really at ease anywhere. Willy is a funny old curmudgeon, a man who doesn’t really like people but can’t help being witty without trying. Ostracised by his countrymen after his wife’s death, he has fled to the USA and not really fitted in there either. There’s a faint possibility that Sadie’s diaries could force Willy to confront the impact of his actions on his daughters and might even offer him the opportunity for redemption – trouble is, will Willy be man enough to try to make up for the sins of the father that have been visited so tragically on the next generation?

I believe that Everything You Know, published in 1999, was Heller’s first book although she was already well known as a columnist. Her second book – ‘Notes on a Scandal’- got a more rapturous reception, with short-listing for the Booker Prize and a film starring Cate Blanchette and Judy Dench but much as I expected to love that one, I found it hard to like the protagonists. Everything You Know is very different and I found it hard NOT to like Willy but I equally felt great sympathy for Sadie. There’s a sad inevitability about the latter’s descent into chaos and despair that contrasts with Willy’s opportunity to stop his own slide and potentially be a better man.

When I got to the end it was quite hard to sum up what had actually happened in the book. It’s basically a tale in which not very much happens, but it’s recounted with such dry wit and wry observation that you can’t help but enjoy the journey even when the destination seems unclear. Heller manages to write convincingly from the points of view of two such different characters. I’ve often criticised books by male writers that don’t ring true when the lead character is a woman but I really can’t find fault with Heller’s ability to speak with the authentic voice of Willy Muller.

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Everything You Know
by Zoe Heller

One Comment on "Everything You Know"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    01/04/2011 at 15:17 Permalink

    I loathed Notes on a Scandal, I found it a very unpleasant storyline and disliked all the characters – I’m glad to hear you didn’t like it either, I’ve never found anyone who didn’t like it yet. This sounds better though, although I must admit the cover looks like it would be fairly lightweight chick-lit.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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