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Katrina Onstad is the author of Everybody Has Everything.

Everybody Has Everything

By Katrina Onstad

Emblem/M&St, 300 pages, $22.99

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A few years back someone suggested that I read Katrina Onstad's debut novel, How Happy to Be, because it was "fun" and promised great thinly disguised gossip about the National Post newsroom. I cracked its spine for a quick first-chapter scan, and the next thing I knew it was 3 in the morning and I was finished. At the time, it was marketed as "thinking woman's chick-lit" (barf!) – another way marketing departments ruin the appeal of perfectly good literary novels with sexist banality. But the prose was quick and witty, the story interesting, and I suggested it to everyone who asked for engaging but light-on-agony book recommendations.

Everybody Has Everything is more ambitious and assured than Onstad's debut, but just as gripping. It reminded me on several occasions of books by Russell Smith, with its Toronto setting, unsentimental narrative style and focus on the complicated nature of desire and the meaning of relationships. But most of all, Everybody Has Everything is about what it's like to be nearing the end of your child-bearing years and the existential panic that ensues when you try to make the completely irrational decision either to have children or not.

Ana and James, both hovering around 40, tried for a number of years to have kids without success. Ana is a lawyer on the path to partnership, and James a TV journalist and aspiring novelist who was once on the cutting edge of his field. Just as they are settling into their lives without children, their friends Marcus and Sarah are in a car accident that leaves Marcus dead and Sarah in a coma. Ana and James are left to care for their two-year-old son, Finn.

They are obviously unprepared; they scan their shelves for graphic novels that may double as bedtime reading and remark on the inappropriateness of Robert Crumb. The sudden and shocking arrival of Finn creates both upheaval and joy in their lives, and makes certain things clear. James, who loses his job and is suffering from a fear of being obsolete at 43, takes to parenting quickly. James and Finn bond in a way that is foreign to Ana, who never quite relaxes around Finn.

Ana can be forgiven for her complicated relationship to parenting, never having really been parented herself. Her own father, before disappearing, said, "I love you, kiddo, but man, I wish I could go to India." Her mother was an alcoholic and narcissist, whom Ana now goes to visit in an old-age home.

James, who had a more traditional suburban upbringing, is uncomfortable with aging at 43, obsessed with not obsessing over his bald spot. He's the kind of guy who wears Arcade Fire T-shirts under blazers and who "still needed the collective giggle of the young women whose lives were just beginning … he needed that small, cooing possibility." Ana and James have been together long enough that their sex life is waning, and their differences magnified.

With Finn's arrival, Ana feels scrutinized by James and overwhelmed by expectations that she should just seamlessly adjust to being a mother. The first night she is left alone with Finn, she wonders, "How is motherhood supposed to feel? Because she wasn't sure that it should feel like this, so much like terror."

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One can't scan a newspaper or magazine this season without seeing articles about the role of motherhood – from the controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover to the lightning-rod book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Onstad's timely new novel examines how and why adults choose to be parents, and what happens when you don't have that much choice in the matter. Will you rise to the challenge, and what if you don't? Ana and James are thoroughly convincing and their agony and triumphs compelling in this impressive sophomore effort.

Holding Still for as Long as Possible is Zoe Whittall's latest novel.

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