48 pages • 1 hour readEmily Giffin
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All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin (2018) is a work of literary fiction that follows the story of two teenagers and their families as they navigate a scandal surrounding a picture taken at a high school party. Giffin intertwines the lives of three characters while they attempt to reconcile with the truth. The story takes place in modern-day Nashville, Tennessee.
Throughout the novel, Giffin explores how individuals must pave their own paths in life. By switching between different viewpoints, she also explores how they can place importance on their own values and morals. Giffin explores themes such as
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This guide refers to the 2019 Ballantine Books Trade Paperback edition.
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Content Warning: This novel contains scenes relating to non-consensual sharing of sexual photos, sexual assault, racism, alcohol misuse disorder, and attempted suicide.
All We Ever Wanted begins with Nina’s portrayal of her seemingly picturesque life: She has a grand house, a husband, and a son who recently got accepted into Princeton. On the night of an important gala, she and her husband Kirk discover that their son, Finch, has posted a sexually explicit picture of a sleeping teenage girl, Lyla, to Snapchat with a racist caption. They approach the situation very differently. Nina wants Finch to face the consequences of his actions, while Kirk wants to pay off Lyla and her father, Tom, to stop them from pursuing action with Windsor, the school that both Lyla and Finch attend.
Lyla, who initially felt lucky for having been invited to a party by Finch, tries to persuade Tom not to report the picture to her school. Tom worries for his daughter, especially after she has watched her mother’s experience of alcohol misuse disorder. He constantly worries for her well-being. As a carpenter, he does not make as much money as the other families who send their children to Windsor. He wants to ensure that the exploitation of Lyla does not go unpunished and reports the incident to the school’s headmaster, Walter Quarterman. Walter sets up a hearing with the school’s honor board.
As they await the hearing, Finch lies to Lyla, and eventually his parents, that his ex-girlfriend Polly took the picture and posted it on his Snapchat story. During this time, Nina meets with Tom to express her grievances about her family’s actions, and they slowly develop a friendship.
Without her father’s permission, Lyla begins to develop a romantic and sexual relationship with Finch. Finch convinces his father to buy tickets to a Luke Bryan concert after Nina says he can’t go, and he persuades Lyla and her friend, Grace, to attend the concert with him and his friend, Beau. This creates conflict within the Browning household: Nina learns that Finch has not only disobeyed her, but that Kirk has been manipulating the situation to get Finch out of trouble.
After the concert, Finch and Lyla continue to develop their relationship, and they have sex. The next day, Lyla wakes up to find that the word “slut” has been spray-painted across her porch. Finch again blames Polly, who confronted Finch and Lyla the day before at his house.
During this time, Nina realizes that she must divorce Kirk and decides to spend the night with her parents. Later, in a meeting with Walter, Polly, Polly’s parents, and the Browning family, Tom is angry and takes Lyla out of school. He and Lyla see his retired therapist friend, Bonnie, who helps them talk through their respective viewpoints.
Polly eventually contacts Lyla to explain that Finch took the picture of her. He also has other pictures and videos of him and Beau taking advantage of girls, including a picture of Lyla asleep with Finch’s penis on her face. Lyla tries to convince Polly to report Finch, who has videos of them having sex. Polly refuses because she fears what her parents will say. After they get off the phone, Lyla worries that Polly may try to harm herself; she calls Nina to help her check on Polly.
Nina and Lyla arrive at Polly’s house after Polly has consumed alcohol and taken prescription pills. Polly is quickly rushed to the hospital where she has to stay overnight.
At the end of the novel, Finch does not receive any punishment from the honor board at school, and Nina divorces Kirk. Over the next decade, Nina attempts to salvage her relationship with Finch while establishing a company with Tom, which aligns his carpentry with her passion for design. Lyla now lives in New York and works as a defense attorney. She returns home to see Nina and Tom win an award for their donations of tree houses to a local charity that helps abused women. After Finch sends her a letter, Lyla reaches out to him to persuade him to come to their parents’ event. Although he lives in London, Finch surprises everyone by coming, and he cries while watching his mom on stage. He mouths to his mother that he is sorry, and Lyla realizes that Nina not only saved her life but his as well.
By Emily Giffin