All He Ever Wanted is a confessional novel: during a long train journey to attend the funeral of his sister, Meritable, Professor Nicholas Van Tassel dissects his relationship with the object of his obsession, Etna Bliss. The reader sees the couple's courtship, marriage and parting through Van Tassel's eye: Etna is an enigma.
All members of the reading group agreed that Anita Shreve had, in Nicholas Van Tassel, presented a very believable portrait of a three dimensional male character who did not hide his flaws from himself. Possessive, jealous and incapable of accepting that his wife had had a love life before he met her, readers learn, as both memoir and journey progress, of the unpardonable deeds done by Van Tassel. These deeds cause him to lose both his wife and daughter, and probably would result in the loss of his son once he read his father's memoirs. But although Van Tassel is guilty of atrocious actions, Anita Shreve is such a good writer that the reader can feel for the man. Van Tassel is not evil: he is obsessed.
The novel is set in the early twentieth century and the author's elegant prose led this reader to feel that it was of that period. All He Ever Wanted is a very well crafted book about (amongst other themes) the danger of jealousy. It is also a call for women's liberation and independence.