It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that made me feel so many mixed emotions. By the time I got to the last few pages, I really didn’t want it to end. I wouldn’t have guessed that’s how I would feel at all, even when I hit the 40% mark of Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear.
What kept me reading? The author is an incredibly gifted writer. She paints such deep, intense, and fascinating characters and scenes that feel almost ethereal. If you like character-driven books, then you may enjoy this, as heavy as it is.
The plot is meandering, but it grows on you if you are captivated by the characters. The plot is like an onion: lots of layers to peel back. A ghost story. A story of terribly unhappy, violent marriages. And a story of children left behind due to domestic violence.
Her plot moves slowly, mainly so that the reader can understand how women end up in abusive relationships, how they end up justifying and tolerating violence against themselves and others. It doesn’t happen overnight – it happens incrementally over a long period of time.
By the time women finally realize that they are in a dangerous relationship, they feel trapped, stuck in an eternal cycle of abuse that seems inescapable. I think a really important part of this story is that it isn’t the individual woman who is at fault for the violence inflicted upon them. Rather, it is society, families, friends – everyone who looks away, turns a blind eye, doesn’t ask questions or offer help….or even worse, who encourage women to stay in a relationship because leaving is “just too hard.” Society is at fault for teaching women to doubt their instincts and intellect. The women in this novel have learned to internalize misogyny and violence, to ignore their inner voice that says “this isn’t right” or “I shouldn’t be treated this way” not because they themselves have issues but because society as a whole is patriarchal and violent.
This book reminded me a lot of some of Margaret Atwood’s older books that I read when I was in college. I’ve read most of her catalog, and her earlier books deal with themes of second wave feminism. This book is based in 1978/1979, which is when second wave feminism took root. The main character even begins to read this scholarship, feeling inspired to leave her husband until she is dissuaded by her family from walking away. This has tragic consequences for her and her child.
The everyday violence of unhappy marriages and the dually oppressive and liberating experience of motherhood are juxtaposed with two horrific murders. I think the author is asking readers to consider which is worse: allowing your sense of self worth to be chipped away daily by a condescending, misogynistic, emotionally and physically abusive husband, or losing your life in one fell swoop to a sociopathic partner? Both are obviously terrible fates. I think the author is also trying to suggest that misogyny is a form of sociopathy that we tolerate as a society.
At the beginning of the book, I really wanted to put it down and be done with it. Did I really want to read another story of women being abused and tormented by their husbands?
But the more I read it, the more I realized that it wasn’t just about abuse. It was about the things we allow into our world because society tells us who we should be. It’s about the hopes and longings women have that go unfulfilled because of society and the company we keep (which is a product of society, of course). But the book is also about hope for a better world, and the ability for generational and societal change in the face of immense tragedy. As dark as it is, the book ends on a hopeful note.
If you watched the Netflix version of this book, it’s nothing like it. The movie is terrible and really doesn’t capture the emotions or even overall sentiment of this book. It watered everything down because the movie did not have the time or space to capture all the characters in the novel.