All That’s Left of Me, Janis Thomas’ most recently published novel, depicts Emma Davies, who is exhausted by her suburban life and its challenges and tends to take her family for granted. Through Thomas’ use of first-person perspective, the reader is placed in Emma’s shoes, taking on her hardships. Emma’s relationship with her husband has long since gone cold, her seventeen-year-old daughter, Kate, is becoming more independent—and, therefore, more rebellious—and her fifteen-year-old son, Josh, has cerebral palsy. Emma loves Josh, but she is honest about the fact that his disability can be a major burden on her life. Although Emma loves her son, the way she talks about him, in addition to another disabled character who appears later in the book, can occasionally come off as patronizing. Though she would never tell him out loud, she views Josh as “a promise unfulfilled” (119). When Emma first meets Devi, a child who has Down Syndrome, she describes her as “a girl with pretty pug features” (141). It is hard to judge if this comment on the girl’s appearance is simply another part of Emma’s characterization or a product of Thomas’ own thoughts.
Despite these questionable moments, I believe there are many readers who can relate to Emma’s frustrations as caregiver for a person with severe disabilities. This book will also hit close to home for anyone who has ever found themselves stuck in a rut, seemingly without purpose and without drive. Emma wants to be more engaged in her daughter’s life but instead keeps a distance, convinced that her lack of involvement is for the better (5). On occasions when Emma does try to give Kate advice on how to “make the best of the situation,” Emma feels that her words are ineffective because she can’t adhere to them herself (62).
With more and more things stacking up on her plate, the neighbors’ new dog that barks incessantly is the last straw for Emma, and she wishes they had never gotten the creature. The next morning, the dog is gone, and no one has any recollection of the pet except her. The exact origin of this new ability or why Emma was chosen for wish fulfillment is never fully explained. However, there is an old storekeeper, named Dolores, who somehow possesses knowledge of all the wishes Emma makes. Dolores displays an array of objects in her antiques store, including a dollhouse that is “too similar to [Emma’s] home for it to be coincidence” (24). The twist of adding a wishes-that-come-true motif to a novel of suburban life does make for entertaining reading, but I would’ve liked a more realistic justification from Thomas about why Emma gained the ability, including a reason as to how Dolores knew she was making wishes.
When Emma connects the dots and realizes that every wish she makes comes true, she spends the next few days struggling to adjust to her shifted reality. This leads to Emma making subsequent wishes and having similar panicked reactions to each new development, which can get repetitive and leaves the reader wondering when she will learn from her mistakes. After a time, she gets used to her new power and begins to use it whenever possible, mostly to her own advantage. Some of the things she wishes for include new furniture for her office, erasing Gone with the Wind from her memory so she can read the book with a fresh mindset, and for her friend Valerie to stop wearing the same perfume (164-166).
Emma views the world through a narrow lens, plagued by “what ifs” and “what could have beens,” while failing to value what she already has. She considers herself a responsible adult but underestimates the consequences her actions have for others. Many of her wishes have negative repercussions for her family and friends—repercussions that she tries to ignore for the sake of her own falsely-created happiness. When she tries to make amends for one particular wish, she sets off a chain of events that make her realize there is a heavy cost for her desires. Emma is a flawed character, but Thomas’ characterization of her is purposeful. Although it can be tempting to write fictional characters as more appealing than the average human, Thomas shows Emma in all her good and bad moments, which enables Emma to be relatable and ultimately easier to sympathize with when the wishes go very wrong. It is also easy to get frustrated with Emma, but mostly because you recognize her troubles and want her to do better. Emma’s case serves a moral lesson to the reader to be grateful for the things you have, because the seemingly “better” realities won’t always align with what you truly need out of life.
Thomas, Janis. All That’s Left of Me. Lake Union Publishing, 2018.