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Emily Giffin’s new novel raises issues of privilege, forgiveness and living an authentic life


When Emily Giffin began writing her ninth novel, she wasn’t thinking about specific social issues but they definitely seeped into the story.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I wrote this during the 2016 election and its aftermath. Racism, classism, and sexism have all become such a large part of our national conversation—as well as conversations in my own community and household,” said Giffin in an interview with the AJC.

All We Ever Wanted,” (Ballantine Books, $28), tells the story of a woman who is forced to choose between her family and her most deeply-held values when her son ignites a social media scandal that threatens to tear apart their community. 

The bestselling author and Atlanta resident will appear Thursday, June 28 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta for a book launch party moderated by radio personality, Mara Davis. 

Her latest work is something of a departure from her previous novels marking the first time Giffin opted to tell a story from three different perspectives. Working with multiple points of view gave her the opportunity to get to know each character intimately—and ultimately find more empathy for each.

First there is Nina, billed as a “Real Housewife of Nashville” who is struggling to reconcile her life of privilege with her small-town roots. Tom Volpe is the earnest, hard-working single father raising his daughter, Lyla. And then there is Lyla, a teen who not unlike Nina, is navigating two identities as a scholarship student at a prestigious private school. The three main characters collide when a sensitive image goes viral on social media and turns the world as they knew it on end.

“I felt that for this particular story and the messy terrain being explored, it was important to get those differing perspectives. It’s always tempting to put characters -- and real people -- in bright-line categories, whether hero, villain, martyr, victim, and I wanted to avoid that,” Giffin said.

>> Related: Atlanta author Emily Giffin discusses her eighth novel 'First Comes Love'

On paper, Giffin, a married mother of three who lives in Buckhead has the most in common with Nina -- a character she found emotionally taxing to develop as her arc tapped into Giffin’s own fears as a mom. But she related most to Tom, the single father. “I connected with his extreme desire for fairness and justice even while recognizing that it can sometimes be counterproductive,” Giffin said. 

Privilege and entitlement are big themes in the novel, something that Giffin said she is always thinking about in her own life. While she and her husband want to provide their children (14-year-old twin sons and an 11-year-old daughter) with every educational advantage and rich life experiences, there are pitfalls associated with such privilege, she said. 

“When does privilege morph into entitlement? As a corollary issue, there is the danger of paving the way too much for our children and protecting them at any cost. Children will make mistakes and deserve understanding and forgiveness, but at what point must we hold them accountable? I think that is essential for building strong character and also maintaining the moral fiber of a community,” she said. 

Grappling with so many complex issues and relationships could make it hard to find just the right ending, but Giffin said the story had a natural trajectory.  “That said, my endings are usually somewhat open-ended because I believe that's more true to real life in which neat, tidy conclusions are a rarity. Life is messy and hard, but I try to leave my characters in a hopeful place,” she said. 

Though she never intends to communicate a message -- and certainly not a morally-based one, when she did finish writing “ All We Ever Wanted,” Giffin said she spent a lot of time thinking about broader themes, what she learned about herself through the characters and what she hopes readers will take from the story.

“I thought a lot about our values and character. What makes someone a ‘good person?’ she said, quoting Jon Stewart : “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not really values. They’re hobbies.”

Giffin said she also wondered what it means to be authentic and to ask if we are all living the life we’re meant to be living. “I’m fascinated by the question of whether or not people can change,” she said. “I believe we can. I believe in redemption and forgiveness.”

EVENT PREVIEW

A Page from the Book Festival of the MJCCA Presents: Emily Giffin, All We Ever Wanted book launch party

7:30 p.m., Thurs., June 28. $30 MJCCA members. $35 community. MJCCA, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. 678-812-4002.atlantajcc.org/bookfestival.

Ticket price includes a pre-signed copy of the book and reception with wine, desserts and light bites. Radio personality Mara Davis will host a conversation with Giffin. Giffin will also pose for photographs with guest


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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.