Picture the roaring twenties, with pinstriped suits, fedoras, headbands with feathers, and of course prohibition. Only picture it in a modern-day setting, and rather than bathtub alcohol and hard-to-find metal, paper and water are now heavily rationed commodities, and coffee and chocolate are illegal.
In ‘All These Things I’ve Done’ by Gabrielle Zevin, Anya Balanchine is the daughter of the city’s most dangerous crime boss. After the gang-war-related deaths of both parents, she’s left to care for her two siblings — one with special needs after another mob hit gone wrong — and grandmother. She’s a proud member of the family, however, and toughs out life’s difficulties as she tries to get through high school. When the new assistant DA’s son develops a crush on Anya, life might get a lot tougher. And she’s right, when an ex-boyfriend gets poisoned by an illegal brand of smuggled chocolate tied to the Balanchine family. Now she must choose whether it’s more important to sever the ties with her criminal background or embrace what’s most important to her in this world: family.
I’m really glad I gave this book a chance, because I wasn’t entirely sold at the very beginning, when heavy-handed references to chocolate and coffee abusers were a bit exaggerated. I assume it was an attempt to elicit the same sympathy and head-shaking embarrassment of witnessing someone freaking out on drugs or drunk out of his mind, but I just wasn’t sold. Perhaps I’m just a chocolate enabler and apologist.
But the book takes a few really dark turns, and the relationships between Anya and her teenage friends were the most realistic I’ve seen written in some time. Nothing was predictable, and I knew what would happen next, always an indicator of a great read. It’s also intriguing to see flawed characters who don’t always make the decisions you hope they will, but offer the reasons and background for why they have to make them.
Add a strong character to an elaborately described period environment, mix in crime, teenage emotions, and coping with deaths, and you’ve got the makings of a thrilling tale.