Tuesday, August 30, 2011

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin

It’s the year 2083 in New York City, and Anya Balanchine’s life is about to implode. Her father, a big-time mafia boss who dealt in illegal chocolate, has died, leaving her to take care of her younger sister Natty and her older mentally-handicapped brother Leo. Their legal guardian is their grandmother, who is so ill she is confined to her bed. This leaves Anya the de facto caregiver to everyone.

Additionally, Anya’s mafia family is exerting pressure on her to become involved in the business. She resists, and she’s especially put out when they try and involve Leo in their shady dealings. She worries that the family might expect her to step up to the plate and occupy the position her father held.

But things don’t completely suck for Anya until she breaks up with her jerk boyfriend. He comes over late one night to beg her for a piece of the contraband chocolate, and she gives in just to get him to go away. Then he lands in the hospital, poisoned, and the source is that piece of chocolate.

Suddenly Anya becomes embroiled in everything she tried so hard to avoid – the legal system, chocolate dealing, her mafia family, and even the son of the district attorney (although she didn’t really want to avoid him…). Anya must find a way to protect herself and her family, as well as determine who is really poisoning the Balanchine chocolate.

Anya lives in a unique dystopian New York. The city is full of crime (even more so than today) and the people have chosen to scapegoat chocolate and caffeine. At one point, an older character compares the prohibition of chocolate and caffeine to the Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s – it’s ineffective and causes more problems than it prevents.

There are also indications of widespread destruction. The Statue of Liberty is only a memory and Liberty Island now houses a massive prison. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been mostly destroyed, and what’s left has been turned into a club called Little Egypt (for the Egyptian artifacts that remain).

Unlike most dystopias, however, the dystopian environment does not take center stage, and the primary struggle is not against the dystopian elements. This could have been a book about the modern-day mafia and been almost the same story. It’s refreshing but also a little disappointing. As an avid dystopia reader, I love learning about all of those awful little details that make up the horrible future world, and I didn’t get a whole lot of that in All These Things I’ve Done. I thought the chocolate mafia was an interesting detail, but it wasn’t developed enough and left me a little dissatisfied.

Anya’s voice, however, is terrific. She’s a little wry, a little sarcastic, a little world-weary, and clearly cares deeply about her siblings and her grandmother. She's just the right combination of smart and naive to be believable as the daughter of a mafia boss with a lot of responsibility but also a teenager.

Unfortunately, I was not as enamored of Leo as a character. I always dread it when authors include a mentally handicapped character in their books because I worry that he will be used a device rather than a person. Need a way to make trouble for the main character? No problem – just have her mentally handicapped brother do something unwise, she’ll try to protect him, and she’ll be in a world of hurt. It came as no surprise that this is exactly what Leo does, on more than one occasion. It got to the point where I didn’t want to read about him because I knew he would be used in this way. I think it’s kind of a cheap tactic and one I’ve seen used too often.

That said, I did enjoy All These Things I’ve Done. Zevin’s writing is solid, the voice she’s created for Anya is engrossing, her plot is fast-paced, and her world-building is interesting (albeit underdeveloped for my tastes). I look forward to the second installment, just not with bated breath.

Review copy provided by the publisher. All These Things I’ve Done hits shelves September 6.

4 comments:

  1. Aw, I'm sorry that it wasn't super because goodness, Mafia and Chocolate? Yes, please! I still love the overall concept so I'm glad it wasn't a total bust!

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  2. I've been reading a lot about this one, most of it good. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I'm putting this on my list!

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  3. I have to say I agree that this doesn't meet one's dystopia needs, but I still thought the chocolate and coffee bit was a riot!

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  4. I just finished the book and I loved it. I couldn't put it down.

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