book review: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

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WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin
★★☆☆☆
Thomas Dunne Books, March 5, 2019

 

Oh man, this is a tough one. It is not often the case that I look at glowing reviews and think ‘did we read the same book?!’ but here we are… I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to love this, too! When All Is Said is a contemporary Irish novel about an old man named Maurice who’s looking back at his life and giving a toast to the five people who had the greatest influence on him, most of whom are already dead. So it’s a premise that promises nostalgia and regret and heartache, but I never really felt any of it.

My main issue with this book was Maurice’s first-person narration – I just wasn’t convinced by his voice. Forgive me, but you know how sometimes you read a female character and think ‘yep, a man wrote this book’ – I felt the opposite here. (Which is more of a gut feeling and probably a baseless one that’s impossible to quantify, so I’m just going to move on.) It’s established early on in this book that Maurice has dyslexia which led him to quit schooling at a very early age and develop a lifelong antipathy for literature; instead he fills his days with farming and various other business ventures. So while Maurice is clearly an intelligent man, and I have no qualms with that intelligence being on display, I’m not sure why Anne Griffin wanted us to believe he was a poetic one? Lines like this:

But her story is like the wind under the front door, whistling its way through the crevices, getting through the cracks in my skin.

and this:

There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.

pulled me out of the story again and again, because why would this 84 year old farmer use that simile, why would he have that sophisticated emotional vocabulary? I guess this goes hand in hand, but what also grated on me was the fact that we were essentially spoon-fed the ways in which the love and loss of these five characters shaped Maurice. Take this passage from the first chapter, where Maurice describes the death of his older brother Tony:

It’s so hard to lose your best friend at any time, but to do so at such a young age was pure cruel. At sixteen I was heading into my life. Having travelled those precious years with Tony by my side, I now had to venture forth into the most significant of them alone. Without his guidance, his cajoling, his slagging. It didn’t feel possible.

It’s too articulate, it’s too on the nose. Funny that this is called ‘When All Is Said,’ because that was exactly my problem: nothing is left unsaid. There is no room for the reader to think or feel anything organically, because we are told exactly how we should think and feel about Maurice’s story. This was missing tension, nuance, thematic complexity. I’ll concede that Maurice is a well-constructed character, and that Anne Griffin makes a real effort to weave together moments of joy with moments of sorrow to paint a three-dimensional picture of this character’s life, I just felt utterly empty while reading this.

Thanks to Netgalley and Thomas Dunne Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can pick up a copy of When All Is Said here on Book Depository.

15 thoughts on “book review: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

  1. Great review. I appreciate your honestly. I have read some very positive reviews on this book, but I will just hold my horses for now and will not rush to buy it 🙂 It is so important for us as readers to connect and be convinced by the narrative and when this does not happen it is very disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I totally agree, I’m learning that ‘inauthentic voice’ is a hurdle I’m just not able to jump over when it comes to appreciating a book for its other merits – I need to be convinced!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no way, I was always going to pick this up! It seemed right up my alley! But now I’m tempted to try to squeeze in another contemporary for the readathon… Anyway you haven’t read this, have you? I’d love to hear your thoughts – I feel like we usually agree but I’m definitely an outlier here!

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    • I’m learning that an inauthentic narrative voice is one of those things that I’m just not able to look past or take with a grain of salt or whatever – I’m sure plenty of readers will acknowledge the same thing in this book and not be driven mad the entire time like I was. But I’ll definitely be haunting the 2 star reviews over the next few weeks to see if anyone else agrees with me 🙃

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  2. Excellent review, and sorry to hear this was only a 2-star read for you! Sometimes a mismatch between a character’s “voice” and their social background can be moving (as in novels like Beloved and As I Lay Dying), but it just seems clumsy and distracting here.

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    • Totally agreed – I think the key is that it has to be done intentionally, which it clearly wasn’t in this case. With the amount of slang and dialect thrown in I think Griffin was attempting for an authentic voice that just completely fell flat for me.

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  3. Ouch. What a great review. This has been on my TBR since the end of last year, mostly because it’s set in modern-day Ireland and the synopsis promises a lot of nostalgia, which I’m a big fan of. It’s so tough seeing you not like this book, but it makes total sense — the passages you highlighted don’t seem to make a lot of sense with dyslexia and being an old farmer… I will still check it out, probably, but I hope I have a better time with it than you did!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope that you do end up enjoying it! Maybe going in with lowered expectations will help? I’m a huge fan of contemporary Irish lit and nostalgic books as well so I never even considered that I wasn’t going to love this, but I hadn’t counted on the writing letting me down so much 😦 Very much hoping you fare better with it!

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  4. Whoops, I was so excited to read this one and pre-ordered it. Although I tend to enjoy criticizing books anyway, so I am interested to see if I agree with you here and I am looking forward to picking it apart. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 😂 I’m the same – writing a negative review is always a good consolation to hating a book. But, I hope you do end up enjoying it! I am so in the minority with this one it’s not even funny. I periodically click on the 2 star reviews on Goodreads and have yet to find another one with similar criticisms. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts either way!

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  5. […] When All Is Said by Anne Griffin: I just don’t get this book; I simultaneously don’t get why I didn’t like it more and don’t get the excessive amounts of praise it has received.  Everything about this book seemed like it was going to be right up my alley (Irish! depressing!), so it’s probably my biggest disappointment of the year that I remained so utterly unaffected by it.  Review here. […]

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