Book Review: “Everything Must Go” by Camille Pagán

The Ann Arbor novelist’s latest book addresses the importance of boundaries, while offering an honest and relatable depiction of middle age
everything must go
In Camille Pagán’s latest novel, the protagonist juggles caregiving and a struggling marriage — plus the potential rekindling of an old flame. // Book cover courtesy of Kathleen Carter Communications

Laine Francis is the middle sister of three. She’s fast approaching middle age and desperately wants a baby. Yet, she feels pulled to care for her ailing mother (and is understandably wary of trying to do both simultaneously).

In addition, Laine’s marriage is coming apart because the death of her beloved dog (and longtime child stand-in) has made her impatient regarding her husband Josh’s baby ambivalence.

But when Laine travels from her home in Ann Arbor to her old stomping grounds in Brooklyn — both to get some space and to assess her mother’s condition at close range — she runs into her childhood best friend, Ben, with whom she’s been out of contact for 16 years.

Why? Because when things between them took a brief romantic turn after college, Ben accused Laine of rejecting him because her possibly racist mom repeatedly discouraged her from pursuing a relationship with him.

If this sounds like a novel with a lot of moving parts, well … it is. But then, “a lot” pretty much sums up what most of us face in middle age. We inevitably question the decisions we’ve made, feel that we’re suddenly “on the clock” in our own lives, and experience loss.

Even so, there’s a sense in Everything Must Go that not every story strand gets its due. After initially being excited and intrigued by the premise of a white character examining a beloved parent’s (and by extension her own) racial blind spots, I felt disappointed when this potentially rich, complicated dynamic was largely glossed over.

And as any self-respecting rom-com fan has surely sniffed out, the book’s love triangle asks whether Laine should stay with her nice-but-not-baby-jonesing husband or opt for the best friend romance she shut down before it even began years earlier. 

Camille Pagán
Camille Pagán // Portrait courtesy of Kathleen Carter Communications

This storyline ultimately feels undercooked too. Weirdly, the threatened divorce doesn’t seem to stir up all that much pain or anger in either spouse. (I know there are amicable divorces out there, but Josh and Laine act almost absurdly mature about this transition out of their 14-year marriage.) And regarding Ben, the idea that he and Laine might simply pick up where they left off, without the changes or experiences they’ve gone through in the interim throwing a wrench in the works, ends up feeling too much like a narrative shortcut.

What Everything Must Go gets right, though, is the family dynamics between Laine and her sisters, the terror of witnessing the mental decline of an aging parent who prizes independence above all else, and how hard it is for a people pleaser to start pushing back and establish boundaries.

For as the middle child, Laine is the family’s go-to peacemaker, and because both of her sisters already have children, Laine’s the obvious choice to leave her career as a home organizer behind and step in to keep an eye on their mother, Sally, who’s started occasionally wandering to the nearby bodega in her nightgown. 

But in a moment of clarity, Laine realizes that, while she’s willing to help, she’s not willing to become her mother’s full-time caregiver, saying: “I had a feeling that made me sound like a monster — or at least it would to my sisters, who were counting on me to lighten their load.” Laine nonetheless commits to her decision, adding, “I was going to have to find a way to deal with whatever fallout came with it.”

Yet one of Pagán’s strengths as a fiction writer (she also penned Life and Other Near-Death Experiences and other novels) is serving up prose that moves, and she also offers up some arresting imagery. In one moment, when Josh has followed Laine to Brooklyn to help with Sally, Pagán writes, “He’d taken his suitcase inside. But instead of scrolling on his phone or working on his computer, he was just … sitting there. It was like seeing a horse lying down in the middle of the field: you knew they slept that way from time to time, but you still couldn’t help but wonder if they’d fallen and couldn’t get up.”

As the pandemic stumbles endlessly on, this manifestation of helplessness is one we can all feel in our bones.

This story is from the April 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition