Art/Culture / Books

REVIEW: Shepherd’s ‘All This and More’ delivers a captivating adventure

Marsh — short for Marshmallow because she’s “so sweet and soft” — hates her nickname but goes by it anyways.

“No one even remembers my real name anymore,” she explains. “As soon as anyone hears Marsh, that’s all they remember. Because I’m so nice.”

After her marriage falls apart and a disastrous attempt to reconnect with a high school ex, she gets a once in a lifetime opportunity to fix her life through quantum bubbling, a new technology that feels almost magical. In the safety of the bubble, a million paths lay in front of her: What if she hadn’t quit law school to have a family, never broken up with her high school sweetheart, and actually traveled like she always wanted? She could have all this and more, and she’s allowed to experiment until she finds the life she wants and make it hers. Just one catch: she has to do it all live for a reality tv show.

In Peng Shepherd’s “All This and More,” the titular TV show unfolds as a choose-your-own-adventure style novel, but it soon becomes apparent that Marsh (and the reader) is not as in control as she seems. No matter what life she chooses, certain details remain the same. Her coworkers and boss are always played by the same cast of characters, scenes keep repeating, and she always has a pet named Pickle. Is it fate? Or is something else going on?

Book cover for “All This & More” by Peng Shepherd. (Photo courtesy of Harper Collins)

As a premise, it’s clever. And in execution, it grapples with some of the deepest fears that we all live with: that we’re not making the right choices, maximizing our potential, and that if only we’d made a different choice at some point in the past, life would be better. In a world of infinite decisions and a comparable number of possible regrets, we all wonder what could’ve been. Everyone went to school with someone famous or was almost right there when some potentially world-altering event happened. How can we ever know we’re in the best of all possible worlds?

In the beginning of the book, Marsh is skeptical of being chosen for the show.

“There are people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit,” she insists even after the host, Talia’s reassurances, “Parents who have lost their children. Patients dying of terminal illnesses. Why was I chosen over someone like that?”

She’s just a random woman who’s had bad luck with love. And she’s got a point. She’s the kind of everywoman we all know but who doesn’t really exist: a middle aged woman, unhappy with her life, chaotically self-sabotaging despite her best attempts to get it together. Talia says her relatability is off the charts, but maybe it’s more than that. Marsh works as a protagonist not because viewers (and readers) can relate to her and see themselves in her experience but because she represents someone who’s failed to have it all in a more disastrous way than most people can imagine for themselves. For a readership that is likely to skew young and female — like reality TV audiences — maybe it taps into the anxiety stewing for young generations who have been told we’re supposed to have it all. And despite allegedly having it easier than previous generations, find that we still can’t.

Shepherd is a masterful world builder, and, as usual, readers are in good hands. The book scratches the same itch as “The Midnight Library” while adding enough twists and turns to keep readers engaged during the outlandish paths. Where many books with multiverse-esc premises start to drag halfway through, Shepherd is self aware and plays with the genre through live chat commentary literally emblazoned on Marsh’s eyes.

“All This and More” might check a lot of the same boxes in terms of genre or premise as other books this year, but it’s in a class of its own. As is typical with books that explore alternate lives (see “The Husbands”), Marsh falls into the consumerist mindset of never being satisfied with the life she’s in. Despite the fact that her life is leaps and bounds better than she started, she starts to think she’s always just one more path, one more redo away from everything falling perfectly into place. But unlike other books, this is not the central tension of the story.

In the U.S., reality TV has long been a platform to litigate social norms, especially around dating and relationships, on a national stage. What behavior is acceptable? What behavior are we not going to accept as a society?

In recent years, this conversation has migrated into social media. People don’t need to wait for the next season to spill the tea anymore, it’s available 24/7 with a swipe of a finger. This has implications for entertainment and who people are having these conversations with.It’s no wonder that when it comes to reality TV based books, “All This and More” is in good company this year: “The Villain Edit;” “Made for You;” and others all play with the reality TV format.

But the use of the choose your own adventure style brings the reader closer to Marsh. Whether readers choose to power through and read the book more like a traditional novel, or actively make choices that will bring Marsh closer or further to her goals, no one’s initial reading experience will be the same — even down to the ending. The first thing readers will want to do after finishing the book is flip it over and start again.

This review first appeared in SPRHDRS as part of my column, Reading the Room. Read more at SPRHDRS (pronounced “spearheaders”).

No Comments

    Leave a Reply