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A Novel

Written by Judy LarsenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Judy Larsen


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: July 25, 2006
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-49336-1
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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“How much do you love me?” Daniel asked his mother.
“I love you all the numbers.”

What begins as a sunny August afternoon on a bucolic lake turns into a tragedy when a Jet Ski swerves fatally close to shore. It’s a day Ellen Banks could never have prepared for, a day no mother should ever have to live through.

The moment her son James is killed, Ellen must face the unimaginable while trying to remain strong for her older son, Daniel, who witnessed the fateful accident and blames himself. Ellen’s shock and grief soon give way to defiance as lawyers and policemen who once vowed to support Ellen’s desire for justice succumb to political pressure and back away. Still, Ellen is determined to see the reckless young man pay for his crime and to heal her family’s deep wounds. But first she must heal herself.

An unforgettable journey of power and emotion, All the Numbers poignantly depicts a woman’s reckoning with her own vulnerability and finding in the wisdom of motherhood the redemptive grace to begin again.




Good God,” Ellen Banks said when she entered the drab, scuffed room that housed the west side Madison branch of the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles. “Could they make this place any more unappealing?”

“What do you suppose they call this color? Sludge?”

Ellen turned to smile at the woman holding the door open for her and answered, “It definitely isn’t in the Martha Stewart Collection.”

The woman laughed in agreement and exited the building.

Ellen groaned as she wended her way to the line for renewing licenses. At first, she was too busy calculating how long it had been since these walls had last been repainted—she noted the decade-old cigarette smoke stains near the ceiling—to notice the length of the line she was standing in. Then she realized that only one person had left her line so she had barely moved in five minutes.

“I thought getting here early would prevent this kind of holdup,” she muttered.

“No such luck.”

Ellen was startled to have her complaint answered by the young man in front of her. She smiled back at him and took a sip of coffee from her Badger football travel mug. She looked at the clock on the wall, then at her wristwatch, convinced the time could not be right. Had she really been in line only eight minutes? Both timepieces must be lying. She started to tap her toes impatiently, then took another swig of coffee. Thank God for thermos mugs, she thought.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a deep voice barked at her from behind.

“Yes?” Ellen turned eagerly, hoping she was being summoned to a newly opened line.

A stern, uniformed woman with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun glared at her. “Didn’t you see the sign?”

“What sign?” Crap, Ellen thought, if I’ve been wasting time in the wrong line I’ll scream.

“The sign that says ‘No food or drink allowed.’ ”

Oh, please, Ellen thought, you’ve got to be kidding. “I’m almost done with my coffee,” she said to the woman, who seemed to see herself in the role of warden. “Don’t worry.”

“There are no drinks allowed. No exceptions. You’ll have to give it to me to throw away or take it back to your car and then come back in.”

“Look,” Ellen pleaded, “I don’t want to lose my place in line. My coffee’s nearly gone, okay? I’m just here for my annual license renewal.”

“You should have paid attention to the sign before you took your place in line.” The warden didn’t move. Ellen tried to summon up some friendly feelings. I guess if I had to work in this environment every day I’d be a little grumpy, too, she thought.

People around them had started to chuckle and stare. Ellen wasn’t sure the best way to respond to the last statement, but she was pretty sure ignoring it wasn’t going to work.

“You’re so right. I should’ve noticed the sign. I’m sorry.” Ellen tried to sound sheepish, but her words came out too heavily laced with sarcasm to buy her any leniency.

“I don’t believe you’re sorry at all. Return the mug to your car now.”

The young man in front of her assured her he would save her place in line. Ellen thanked him and started to walk out but couldn’t resist first saying to the woman, “Now that you’ve made the room safe from coffee spills, would it kill you to open up another line?”

Thirty coffeeless minutes later, Ellen neared the front of the line. All that stood between her and release was a heavyset middle-aged woman at the counter and the young man who had saved her place in line. The woman conversed seriously, but quietly, with the clerk. Ellen strained to hear what was holding the line up yet again.

“Oh,” the woman whined, “I just don’t know what to do. I’m never sure about this.”

“It’s gotta be your decision,” the clerk responded. She appeared bored and tired as she looked back and forth between the woman and the long line stretching behind her.

“What do you suggest?” the woman asked the clerk again.

Ellen sighed and asked her newfound line friend, “What’s her big quandary?”

“Organ donation.”

Ellen shook her head and watched them talk quietly. Come on, lady, she pleaded silently, I’ve just lost thirty minutes of my life standing right here waiting. While the clerk nodded at the woman, popped her gum, and toyed with her hair, Ellen thought she heard the woman ask about being sure she was really gone before anyone started cutting her open to get at her heart. Again Ellen groaned, then said softly, “Jeez, it’s not like it’ll matter to you if they take anything. You’ll be dead.”

Apparently she had used too much volume—not only did this elicit laughter from those in line with her, but the woman at the counter turned to her, frowned, then said to the clerk, “Just forget it. I can’t decide something this important when I am being pressured.”

As the woman left, Ellen smiled at her in an effort to apologize for her rudeness. So far this morning, I’ve made at least two people angry in this room alone, and I’ve cost the organ donation program a future donor, she thought. Not a great start to my first day of summer vacation.

Ellen pushed her grocery cart through the produce section and stopped to add lettuce and peppers to her cart. She’d already selected peaches, plums, grapes, and strawberries. One of her goals was to eat more like an adult—she kept telling herself that by the time she was forty her diet should be more health-focused and less like a teenager’s, but that deadline was now less than two years away and she hadn’t made any major progress. She bought “healthy,” but more often than not the vegetables turned to liquid in the crisper drawer before she’d eaten them.

“Mrs. Banks?”

Ellen glanced up to see one of her students shopping with her mom. “Hi, Melanie. Hi, Ms. Monroe.”

“Actually, it’s now Mrs. Parker. I got remarried this spring,” Melanie’s mom answered with a broad smile.

“Congratulations,” Ellen said, “that’s great. I had no idea.” She looked at Melanie, surprised that she hadn’t mentioned it to Ellen at school. They’d had all those afternoons of unpacking and numbering books while Melanie fulfilled her community service hours for National Honor Society.

Melanie shrugged in response, then said, “I thought I’d told you. Sorry.”

“Well, have a great summer.”

“We will,” Melanie’s mom said, then added, “It’s going to be an exciting time with Mel starting to look at colleges and me getting ready for a new baby.”

“Oh my,” Ellen said, “you really are gearing up for some big adjustments. How fun.”

“Well, we’ll let you get back to your shopping, but it was good seeing you,” Melanie’s mom said as they headed to the opposite end of the aisle. Ellen smiled and waved, then glanced at the contents of her cart to make sure there were no problematic or embarrassing items. Good thing I haven’t gone down the liquor aisle yet, she thought.

Running into students all over this side of Madison was something Ellen wasn’t entirely used to, even after six years of teaching. The grocery store was pretty benign; the community pool another experience altogether. There she would have to fight the urge to tell the girls to appreciate their flat stomachs, firm butts, and cellulite-free thighs. They take those things for granted, she thought, and they probably look at me and all the other moms here and vow to never let themselves go the way they think we have. Little do they know that body parts have minds of their own.

As she loaded up her cart with the fruit snacks, Lucky Charms, and Pop-Tarts that her sons, Daniel and James, would polish off within days, she winced at how far she had come—or regressed—from the diligence with which she had policed their diets when they were younger. She had breast-fed each of them for a full year, had even made her own baby food. Now they consumed sugared cereal with abandon. Fortunately they were just as ravenous for yogurt, fruit, and milk. But still, the guilt she often felt wasn’t far from the surface, especially when she passed other moms who bought Cheerios and apples and firmly told their toddlers that no, they couldn’t have Cocoa Puffs for breakfast.

Lugging the groceries into the house, Ellen heard the boys laughing and wrestling in the family room. She called to them for some help while trying to shoo away Stella, their golden retriever mix, who eagerly sniffed the bags of food. “Sorry, Mutt,” she whispered, “no rawhides or anything for you in there today.” She hollered again for the boys, knowing that she was competing with the stereo. “Turn it down, guys.”

“Hey, Mom, have we got a deal for you!” Her younger son startled her from behind.

“James, can you hold off on the negotiations until we’ve unloaded all the groceries from the car?”

“Sure. But you’ll love our plan. I promise.”

Ellen smiled. At eleven, James was at such a great age. Still enough of a little boy not to be blasé, but grown up enough to be fun to do things with. He was funny and sarcastic and sweet, and Ellen dreaded the thought of him becoming a moody teenager in a few short years. Daniel, at thirteen, was just on the cusp—some days chatty and happy and friendly, but at other times, with no warning signs at all, he would shut her out, sigh, and roll his eyes at everything she said.

She looked at her sons hauling in the last few bags. Just for a few minutes she paused to try to drink them in without their notice. Daniel was so ready to be independent. He was just starting to fill out. He’d always been thin and wiry, but his shoulders were losing the slope of childhood. By next summer, he’d probably be as tall as she was or taller. How strange it’ll be, she thought, to stare directly into hazel eyes exactly like her own. Did he have any idea how handsome he was? She hoped not. And then James—his pudgy toddler body had been such a contrast to Daniel’s angles, and now, though he’d never be skinny, he was clearly the stronger of the two. She watched him hoist the fifty-pound bag of dog food with ease; in another few years they’d be young men. How did it all happen so fast?

The clatter of a dish falling into the sink brought Ellen back to the present.

“Good move, idiot,” Daniel said to James.

“If you’d put your bowl in the dishwasher I wouldn’t have knocked it over,” James shot back.

“Look, guys, just stop it.” Ellen hated their bickering. “I’ll take care of it, okay.” She stepped between them, hoping to enable a truce. “Nothing spilled. It’s not a problem.” Ellen started putting away the perishables. From the dirty cereal bowls on the counter, and now in the sink, and the nearly empty milk carton in the fridge, she deduced that the boys had eaten breakfast while she was gone.

“So here’s our plan,” James began, having already forgotten the near fight with Daniel. Nothing fazed him. No ill will lasted more than a moment. Daniel, on the other hand, still glared at them both. “We think it’ll work great for you.”

“Okay, buddy, lay it on.”

“Well, you know how you’ve been bugging us to clear out our closets and get our rooms more organized?”

“Gee, I vaguely recall mentioning that to you a few hundred times this spring.”

“Well, see, we agree with you.”

“There’s a shocker. Could you please say that again?”

“Say what again?”

“That I was right.”

“Well, that’s not exactly what I said. I said, ‘We agree with you.’ ”

“Close enough.”

James laughed, and then repeated very slowly and with careful enunciation, “We . . . agree . . . with . . . you.”

Ellen smiled. “Okay, now you can go on.”

“So here’s the deal. We clean up our rooms, you pay us, then you take us down to State Street so we can buy new posters and stuff.”

“Good plan. Except for the ‘you pay us’ part.”

“C’mon, Mom,” Daniel chimed in. “Please.”

Since it was June and Ellen always felt flush from receiving all of her summer paychecks at once, she agreed. As much as she tried to budget her summer money carefully, her checkbook always seemed awfully thin come late August.

“Listen, if you guys want to go today, I’ve got some things to return to Memorial Library. I could let you shop for an hour or so then.”

“Cool,” the boys said in unison as they raced off to their rooms.

“Any clothes that don’t fit, put in a pile for Goodwill. Don’t just throw them out,” she hollered after them.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Judy Merrill Larsen

During the summer of 2005, Judy Larsen was invited to New York to the Random House Publishing Group offices, and while visiting there, she was introduced to Bev Marshall, author of Walking Through Shadows, Right as Rain, and Hot Fudge Sundae Blues. After Bev said how much she loved All the Numbers, she asked Judy if she’d answer a few questions about her novel over a cup of coffee. Here are a few bits and pieces of their conversation.

Bev Marshall: I’ve already told you how much I loved All the Numbers, but I didn’t tell you that I actually stayed up until three A.M. reading it. I just couldn’t go to sleep until I knew what was going to happen to poor Ellen.

Judy Merrill Larsen: Well, I’d say I’m sorry you lost sleep, but I’m not. What a thrill to know you couldn’t put it down.

BM: I’d bet I wasn’t the only reader you kept up late, and I’d also wager that I wasn’t the only one who wants to know if this was an account of a personal experience. Have you suffered the loss of a child?

JML: Thank God, no. But I think most parents have had those scary trips to the emergency room when you hope your child just needs a few stitches or those moments of terror when your toddler is lost in a crowd, and you try to remember what he was wearing. As a mother, one of the most frightening moments I had was when my first grader was hit by a car. I was frozen for a few seconds. I didn’t want to run out and check on him because I was so scared of what I might have to face. He turned out to be fine, but of course I didn’t know that yet.

BM: Thank God for that! So was your son’s accident the inspiration for All the Numbers?

JML: Not exactly. I think I’d been dreaming it up for years–ever since I became a mother and learned that overwhelming, awful truth of how much I loved my sons, how much I wanted to protect them, and how in so many ways I was powerless.

BM: I’m a mother, too, so I know exactly what you mean. What was so very chilling to read was the contrast between this idyllic scene at the lake and the horror that followed. I could visualize that scene, hear the Jet Ski approaching. I’m guessing you’ve spent some time on a lake yourself. Am I right?

JML: Yes. Just like Ellen, I’m lucky enough to have a best friend who has a lake house and we go there often. The story came to me one summer day on her dock in Lake Ripley in Wisconsin. We sat there, sipping wine and talking as her daughters and my sons played in the lake. A Jet Skier went by. And I started to think, what if? What if one of the children had been a bit farther out? What would that do to me as a mother? To our friendship? To the other children? The story flowed from there.

BM: Speaking of flowing, I think you should give out boxes of tissues with your book to wipe all the tears that your readers will shed. I used up an entire box myself.

JML: You know, I hear that from everyone who reads this. Even men. And I find it very gratifying that I am able to elicit that kind of emotional connection with my words. I still catch myself tearing up when I reread certain parts of the book, and it’s good to know I’m not the only one sniffling.

BM: Like most authors, I have great empathy for my characters, and I’m sure that you do, too. We live inside their bodies as we write, so how on earth did you manage to survive writing about Ellen’s pain?

JML: Well, it was hard because I did relate to Ellen so closely. There were days I was just exhausted for and with her. And my poor sons– they were the same ages as Daniel and James the summer I wrote the first draft, and they’d be headed to the pool and I’d be hollering after them, Don’t go in too deep, and be careful, when what I really wanted was for them to sit inside where I knew they’d be safe and sound.

BM: I know what you mean. I feel the same way about my grandson every time he goes to our pool.

JML: So there never comes a point when we get to relax? I hadn’t even thought about worrying about future grandbabies, Bev.

BM: Nope, you never stop worrying. Motherhood is a lifetime profession. But besides understanding the fears of us mothers (and grandmothers), you seemed to know so much about the stages of grief and all of the complex emotions a mother would feel after the death of her child. How did you know this, Judy? Did you consult professionals or do other kinds of research about the subject?

JML: Again, I think the only research I did was forcing myself to imagine the very worst. I think that’s how I cope with fears–try to go all the way through to what I would do. Who would I call? I wanted Ellen to have honest reactions. That’s what always intrigues me when I hear or read about real-life accidents and tragedies. I always want to ask the survivors, What’s your new normal? How long did it take you to get there? I remember reading an article about Elizabeth Edwards, and she said how after her sixteen-year-old son was killed she just watched the weather channel day after day after day. And I thought, yeah, that sounds about right, I could see myself becoming almost catatonic.

BM: I think that’s so brave of you, to vividly imagine the worst happening. That’s probably why I thought this novel was a personal experience. You also captured exactly how I think a teenage boy would react to all of the events that occur in the novel. I know that, like me, you are a teacher, and I’m wondering if your perceptions of Daniel were based on your interactions with your students?

JML: I think it was based on both my students and my sons. I really find those early teenage years, especially with boys, to be such a fascinating time. They aren’t little boys anymore, but they don’t have the confidence and swagger they’ll have in a few years. There is such a sweetness there, but also a coolness or distance. I always describe my ninth-grade students (mainly the boys) as being like puppies. They mean well, but their feet are too big. And for Ellen, Daniel is becoming someone she doesn’t know–partly because she’s so wrapped up in her pain, but also because that’s part of the growing-up process.

BM: I love that analogy of the boys’ feet and puppy paws. And while we’re on the topic of students and school, I noticed numerous references to numbers and the Capitol throughout the novel that seemed to me to have symbolic significance. Did you consciously work these references into the text, and if so, how did you perceive their significance?

JML: Did my English students feed you this question, Bev? I love symbolism, but I know there are always a few of them who sit and shake their heads, thinking, “She is so making this stuff up.” What’s funny is that with the references to numbers, that was very intentional, but the references to the Capitol were not conscious at all. I thought the idea of numbers might tie in to things making sense– you know x + y = z. And of course, for Ellen, those familiar patterns have been completely destroyed–what she is looking for are new patterns, new rules. Now that I think about it, the Capitol references kind of tie in to the same idea–you know, structure, order, rules.

BM: Well, now I have to ask you if you were consciously conveying a message about organ donation to your readers. I was really surprised by Ellen’s reaction to donating James’ organs.

JML: Let me say right off I am a huge believer in organ donation. My card is signed. I want to encourage everyone to become an organ donor. But I also think that, at least for me, donating organs in the face of losing a child wouldn’t bring relief right away. It certainly wouldn’t prevent me from offering my child’s organs, but it wouldn’t lessen my agony. That just fit with how I thought Ellen would react. She’s not noble in her grief. She just hurts, and there’s not a thing in the world that’s going to lessen that hurt other than time.

BM: And I suspect that even time can’t heal the grief but only lessen the pain one must feel after losing a child. As I read the novel, I saw that Ellen’s reaction to that pain was to focus her thoughts and actions on revenge. She directs her rage toward Ben Buchanan and the manufacturers of Jet Skis. But Ellen experiences a complete turnaround in her sympathy for the Buchanan family. Did you foresee this happening, and if so, did you view this “epiphany” as part of the healing process?

JML: What I liked was how Ellen, initially so stuck in her grief and rage, gradually is able to look outward. I think that’s how she heals, and probably how we all heal. When all we can see is our own pain, that’s a very narrow vision. As Ellen sees things more broadly– through Daniel, through Ben’s mom and others, she is able to forgive and move on. So yes, all that is part of her healing.

BM: And Ellen’s healing is revealed beautifully in the last scene. Oftentimes I’m disappointed by the endings of novels, but the ending of All the Numbers was just perfect. Did you know the outcome of the trial and the denouement for Ellen when you began writing or was this ending a surprise to you?

JML: I knew she would ultimately forgive Ben, but I didn’t know all the specifics of how that would come about. That’s one of the things I love about writing: my characters let me know who they are as I write. It’s fun to have those moments where as I’m writing I am also thinking, “Hmmm, I sure didn’t see that coming.”

BM: Oh, I know, I know. Oftentimes my characters surprise and delight me. I think they’re all a lot smarter than I am. So you didn’t know what the final scene would be?

JML: I did know what the final scene would be–Ellen and the others, standing on the dock, spreading James’ ashes to the wind. The challenge was getting her to that point. I knew there would be a trial; I knew that Ellen would lose her “blood thirst” for Ben Buchanan. What I didn’t know was how she would get drawn into the mud– how she would be made to look guilty. That came in one of the later revisions.

BM: Speaking of revisions, are you hard at work on another novel?

JML: Yes–and it is completely different from this book. I promise you won’t need any Kleenex.

BM: I don’t mind buying another box, but what is the new novel about?

JML: It’s a romantic comedy about a woman in her thirties who has had it with dating–and with shaving her legs. So she decides if she quits one she can quit the other, too. Then of course she meets a great guy–but she’s taken a stand and doesn’t want to back down.

BM: One final question: My readers are always curious about my writing habits, and I’m sure that your readers want me to ask you about yours. What’s a typical writing day like for you? How often and where do you write? Do you have a special talisman or ritual that helps you write?

JML: I don’t know how typical it is, but a good writing day for me starts with me taking a long walk with my dog–often I’m the first one up, and this not only gets us some exercise, but it’s some time I can think about where my characters and I might be going that day. It’s a way for me to focus and get inside my characters’ heads. Once everyone in the house is off to work or school, I try to write for a few hours. This is my most productive time. I write my first draft (and make most of my revisions) in longhand–preferably sitting on my front porch with a cup of coffee, so my talismans would be a stack of new legal pads and some good ink pens (not ballpoint). I really like writing in longhand–it seems more intimate.

BM: I knew you had a dog! Judy, thanks so much for sharing all of this with me. I know you have to go back home, but I’ve had so much fun I hate to leave. Let’s plan to meet again somewhere soon. I have a feeling we’re going to become good friends.

JML: Absolutely, just tell me where and when. And even more, I think our characters (and maybe even our dogs!) would be buddies, too.



“Judy Merrill Larsen’s All The Numbers is sure to join Judy Guest’s novel Ordinary People, and Jacqueline Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean as one of the most talked-about books of its time.”
–Cassandra King
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. In the interview with Bev Marshall, Judy Larsen discusses the use of symbolism in All the Numbers (page 276). Did you notice references to numbers in the book? Were they effective as symbols, in your opinion?

2. Discuss some examples of effective symbolism in your favorite novels. When has an author successfully used symbols, and when have you felt an author’s use of symbols was ineffective?

3. One of the surprising moments in All the Numbers is Ellen’s internal debate about organ donation. Were you surprised by her reaction when organ donation was suggested? Do you feel her reaction was realistic?

4. In the interview with Bev Marshall, Judy and Bev discuss the ending of the book. Was the ending satisfactory to you?

5. What constitutes a strong ending for a novel, in your opinion? Have you been disappointed by a novel’s ending in the past? How much bearing did that have on your opinion of the novel as a whole?

6. In the novel, Ellen is criticized for giving an interview to the media before the trial. Did you agree that she should have remained silent or did you feel the interview was appropriate? How influential do you feel the media is in our justice system?

7. Ellen clearly struggles with her romantic interest in Bob. Do you think she is unfair to him? Both Bob and Ellen recognize that they met because of James’ death. Whose argument seems more convincing to you–Bob’s or Ellen’s?

8. Who or what do you think is most responsible for Ellen’s change of heart regarding Ben Buchanan? Her mother’s words seem to fall on deaf ears throughout most of the book–do they finally get through to her or is it seeing Ben’s mom or running into Melanie? Or something else?

9. Does Ellen’s position as a single mother make her more vulnerable? Does any of her anger with Ben Buchanan seem to get mixed up with her anger at Tim, her ex-husband?

10. The lake house is first introduced as Ellen’s “happiest place”– and even the boys see it that way. Does that increase the horror of James’ accident both for the reader and for Ellen? Do you think she would have the same desire for revenge if the accident had happened elsewhere?

11. When the defense attorneys first throw accusations at Ellen, she is stunned and mad at Bob that he didn’t see it coming. Did you have any sense that she would be blamed? Do you fault her or feel that she has to bear some of the responsibility?

12. Ellen is very lucky to have good friends who have clearly sustained her over the years, and that continues with James’ accident and death. What do you think their view of the trial is? Anna especially seems to stay out of the argument–do you get any hints as to whether she agrees with Ellen’s mother that Ellen is being too punitive or aggressive with Ben? Do you think she is?

13. The relationship between Ellen and her son Daniel goes through some real changes. How do you imagine their relationship six months after the final scene?

14. How do you think Daniel would feel about Bob and Ellen dating? How did Ellen’s grief affect her relationship with Daniel? What other factors were affecting their relationship?

15. How did you feel about Ellen’s treatment of Daniel after James’ death?

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