One suspects that what drew Tanis Rideout to the subject of her absorbing, book-club-ready first novel, Above All Things — a dual portrait of 1920s mountaineer George Mallory and his wife, Ruth — was a variation on Mallory’s famous explanation for why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: because of what wasn’t there. After all, missing from most accounts of Mallory’s explorations of Everest is the family he left behind — Ruth and their three young children. As Mallory and his team embark on their fateful 1924 expedition, Ruth finds herself in a new house in Cambridge, England, raising the kids and procrastinating as she unpacks George’s books and papers.
Of course, Ruth lives in a pre-satellite era when she must wait on news from her husband via letters sent three or four weeks before. She endures not only anxiety over his safety — those letters may already be posthumous — but a sense of inadequacy over his eagerness to leave her for vast stretches of time in pursuit of his historic quest. ”You say you love us,” she tells him at one point. ”And I believe you. But every time you’re asked to choose, you choose the mountain. Do you know how that feels?”
Rideout has a real feel for mountaineering, and her depiction of the Everest climb pulses with visceral detail as she smartly toggles between the viewpoints of old pro Mallory and the team’s youngest member, Andrew ”Sandy” Irvine. Perhaps inevitably, though, the book’s Cambridge scenes lack a comparable sense of high-stakes tension. There is plenty of feeling, but also a creeping monotony in Ruth’s many manifestations of worry and regret. That too may be part of Rideout’s almost retro message, that we shoulder responsibility in different, gender-coded ways. ”Duty is something men step inside and fasten around them, like uniforms,” she writes. ”For women, duty is a cloak draped over us, that weighs us down.” A-
The Opening Line:
”Tell me the story of Everest,” she said, a fervent smile sweeping across her face…. ”Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me.”