Equal parts a gangster saga epic, a tale of doomed star crossed romance and an urban dystopia so bleak it brings to mind the nightmare skyscapes of Blade Runner, Zevin's novel is a compelling read. Her sixteen year old heroine, Anya, finds herself reluctant head of the family now that her dad, who so happens to be New York's most notorious gangster, is dead. The ostensible head of the family, elder brother Leo, has the mental age of a child, and Anya has to look after him, younger sister Natty and a dying grandmother. Solace is found in the arms of handsome Win. But when Anya is accused of poisoning her ex-boyfriend, Win's father, the District Attorney, insists she stay away from him or watch as he destroys her family.
Dystopian novels are a dime a dozen at the moment in YA fiction, and I for one felt like falling to my knees in gratitude when reading this. In stark contrast to the majority of dystopian books out there, this is a well-written, tightly plotted book, and the characters have depth. Anya herself is an engagingly complex heroine. She is by turns strong and vulnerable; clearly in thrall to her dead father (she quotes his 'wise sayings' often) and yet reluctant to continue with the 'family business'. There is a touch of Michael Corleone about her, but unlike Mario Puzo's ultimately tragic hero there really is a sense of hope she can escape from a life of moral decay and brutal deeds. Win, too, convinces as her love interest, although he comes across as a bit too perfect sometimes.
Zevin builds a nightmarish world (who wants to live in a world where chocolate and coffee are illegal?), yet All These Things I've Done relies more upon psychological suspense than action set pieces to grip its reader. In most cases this works, but on occasion she could perhaps have gone for the jugular a bit more. Late on in the novel, there are two crucial violent confrontations which are 'off camera', which feels like a missed opportunity to show the realities of Anya's family in its true, ugly light. Occasionally, this approach does slow the pace sometimes, and I'm not sure how teenage readers will react to fifty page chapters...
But for the most part, All These Things I've Done is an admirable achievement, and deserves a wider readership than your average dystopian YA novel. The attempts at a comparison with David Copperfield are a bit too lofty, perhaps, but the novel's emotional ending suggests there's no reason to think the second part of the trilogy won't be even better.