All the Time in the World, Caroline Angell’s debut novel, gets right to the defining point of the story. The book begins this way:
“The day she died was not beautiful. There have been a few world disasters in my lifetime, generation-defining events, and the ones I remember most clearly were marked with the hideous irony of a perfect blue sky. But the day Gretchen McLean died was miserable and drizzly, with periods of nasty.”
Charlotte, the book’s narrator, is a uniquely talented composer/song writer (and yes, Charlotte seems to think there is a difference between the two terms) who has taken a break from that world to be the all-day babysitter of a wealthy couple’s two little boys. The “Gretchen McLean” referenced in the quote above is the boys’ mother – and when she is suddenly snatched from the picture, Charlotte realizes that she has been promoted to the second most important figure in the lives of the two boys. If she abandons them now by returning to her own life, the only world they have ever known will end forever. Charlotte knows in her heart that losing both mother-figures in their lives at once will be more than the boys can cope with, so she signs on for the duration.
But, frankly, Charlotte is not ready to return to the competitive world of music and musicians anyway, so the decision is not something she much agonized over. It is only when her old life begins to intrude on her caregiver life that she begins to question her decision to become Matt and George’s surrogate mother. By then, though, it is too late – way too late.
Angell’s novel is really a study in grief and the various methods that friends and family use to cope with the sudden death of someone they loved dearly and miss tremendously. Gretchen McLean was only in her mid-thirties when she died, so the initial reaction, straight across the board, was more one of shock than anything else. Some are able to get past the shock quickly, others not. Some feel guilty, and whether it is “survivor’s guilt” or whether it is regret for something left unsaid, they feel that guilt intensely. Some are angry that she is gone, maybe even a little bit angry with Gretchen herself for not being more careful on the New York streets. And some, especially her husband, just miss her so intensely that they bury themselves in work. Charlotte, though, mostly feels trapped in a life she did not ask for and now cannot escape.
All the Time in the World is filled with well-developed characters for Charlotte to bounce her own emotions off of, some who worry about her, some who are a little jealous and wary of her new “relationship” with the boys’ father, some who cannot understand why she allows her life to be stolen from her this way, and some who dislike her intensely.
One criticism: Angell’s use of flashbacks to various points in time prior to Gretchen’s death is effective at first – but flashbacks every six or eight pages for over three hundred pages become a little wearying and tend to be more a distraction than anything else. This is a relatively small criticism, but it did affect the enthusiasm with which I returned to the book between reading sessions with it.
Bottom Line: All the Time in the World is an effective debut novel and Caroline Angell is a writer I will look forward to reading again. And that’s what counts, really.