Skip to Main Content

All the Water in the World

A Novel



Buy from Other Retailers

About The Book

A stunning debut novel about a teenage girl and her mother as they grapple with first love, family secrets, and tragedy.

Maddy is sixteen. Smart, funny, and profound, she has loyal friends, a mother with whom she’s unusually close, a father she’s never met, devoted grandparents, and a crush on a boy named Jack. Maddy also has cancer. Living in the shadow of uncertainty, she is forced to grow up fast.

All the Water in the World is the story of a family doing its best when faced with the worst. Told in the alternating voices of Maddy and her mother, Eve, the narrative moves between the family’s lake house in Pennsylvania; their home in Washington, DC; and London, where Maddy’s father, Antonio, lives. Hungry for experience, Maddy seeks out her first romantic relationship, finds solace in music and art, and tracks down Antonio. She continually tests the depths and limits of her closeness with her mother, while Eve has to come to terms with the daughter she only partly knows, in a world she can’t control.

With unforgettable voices that range from tender to funny, despairing to defiant, this novel illuminates the transformative power of love, humor, and hope.


All the Water in the World 1
A lake is a black hole for sound. The wind, the crack of a hammer, the cries of birds and children weave a rim of noise around the water, making its silence more profound. When a turtle or a fish breaks the surface, the sound appears to come from within. Maddy, who is a natural philosopher, would want to know whether it really is sound, or just the possibility of sound, that issues from such breaches. I mention Maddy because to have a child is to have a twofold mind. No thought or action belongs to me alone. This holds true more than ever now.

Every morning that summer I made my way to the dock, moving my cup of coffee up and down to prevent a spill. Some days when I arrived, the mist was a thick white lid. Some days it was lifting to expose the pan of still water. Some days I could see circles of rain popping out on the lake before the drops reached my skin. Robin never came with me. He was busy building the new room in the attic, a blank place that smelled of raw wood and glue and had a completely different light from the rest of the house. Being up in the thick part of the pines, it should feel like a tree house if it’s ever finished.

When I reached the shore, the day I met our neighbor, the mist had already cleared. The colors were intense, almost unbearably so: sap green, white gold, blue of every kind. The dock wobbled underfoot as I stepped down, making me aware of both the mass and the instability of water. I set my cup on the low table at the end and brushed the dew off the two Adirondack chairs, whose green surface was bubbled and flaking. Those chairs needed repainting, but I knew if I mentioned it to Robin he would say in his hearty voice, “Hey, Eve, that’s a good job for you!” and I have more than enough to do while I’m here.

Standing to face the lake, I indulged in a moment of play, as though I were on a stage with the curtain closed behind me. I swung my arms. I did fifty jumping jacks. I mimed a person singing or shouting, until I felt myself to be rising, clothed in feathers and scales, a creature that forgets everything and lives by its wits.

I sat and sipped my coffee. Before me, the pine trees pointed up and their reflections pointed down, just as convincing as the real ones, and I allowed myself a few moments to believe in this second world.

At the far shore, something puckered the glassy surface. A kayak, paddling purposefully in my direction. There was plenty of time to retreat, but I stayed put. Must be the newcomers who were rebuilding the house across the way. They’d painted the house yellow. It is so exposed that we think they have violated the bylaws of the lake association charter. We think some shoreline trees must have been cut down to give them a better view. This also gives us an unwelcome view of a bright yellow house. It has even found its way into the reflection. Maddy would agree the color yellow is garish for a house. Garish may not be her word, but it is perfectly apt. Tawasentha, the highest natural lake east of the Rockies, has always been, and will always remain, a no-motorboats, cabin-in-the-woods kind of place, no matter how big the cabins have become. Forty years ago, when my father bought the lot, people built their own houses. Dwellings are still supposed to be some shade of brown or gray. The world needs all the trees it can get.

The kayak advanced toward me, dragging the shattered reflection along behind it. The occupant was a woman of about my age. She coasted alongside the dock, smiling openly. Her hair was pulled back into what resembled a reddish ball of yarn, and her arms and face were covered with freckles, which the sun had blurred but not managed to melt into a tan. The paddle across her knees was dripping from both ends. She certainly wasn’t the person I imagined would come from that house. I sat above her on the dock and waited.

“Is everything okay? You were waving. I thought maybe you needed help.”

“I was doing yoga,” I said, touched but annoyed to hear the word help spoken so casually.

The stranger’s intense blue eyes passed over me. I don’t think she believed me for a minute. “I’m Norma. Your new neighbor.” She gestured with her paddle, scattering drops. “We’re doing things to the place before moving in. I hope it hasn’t been too much of a nuisance. The noise, I mean.”

I shook my head. When I said nothing, she raised her paddle as if to lever the kayak backward. That was when I surprised myself by inviting her to join me on the dock. By the time she had tied up her boat, wiped her hands on her shorts, and sat down, I was already regretting my invitation. Our chairs were awkwardly close, but I could hardly adjust their position now. Nor could I finish drinking my coffee in front of her, or give in to the solitary pleasure of holding the mug between my hands and inhaling the steam. There was nothing to do but gaze together lakeward. Chitchat was in order. Better to get it over with.

“You have a family?”

“Three kids. Luke’s eight, Ben’s six.” Norma grinned. “Tanner’s forty-two.”

“I’ve got one of those. He’s in his playroom at the moment.” I nodded in sisterly fashion toward the house, although in spite of the messy marriage he’d left behind and occasional bouts of glumness, Robin was as grown up as they come. I leaned forward to study a dragonfly shimmering on the arm of my chair. I’ve always been fascinated by the way they alight and lift off without warning.

Looking up, I said: “I guess your house needs a lot of work.”

“Gutting, boiling, starting over from the ground up? According to Tanner. He’s an architect. I kind of liked it the way it was.”

“I don’t think the Gibsons had touched that place since the seventies. They kept the wood shingles. They left the shoreline trees alone . . .”

“Rustic charm, I think it’s called,” said Norma.

“You’ve picked an unusual color.”

She waved at her kayak, moored below. “First thing we did. I have a thing about yellow. My mother’s favorite color.”

I did not mention the bylaws. Instead I steered the conversation toward the goings-on of the association. Any pause I filled with a question. Was she native to Pennsylvania or a transplant? How had they come to buy the lot? Did her husband’s practice give him much time with the boys? I learned about Tanner’s loopy business partner and Ben’s tantrums. I studied Norma’s face as she recounted her children’s foibles in tones of high bemusement, as if motherhood were a hilarious accident that had happened to her while she’d been looking the other way.

She stopped talking and frowned into the sun. Under the freckles her skin shone as if lit from within. I felt a longing for the easy company of women. I know my smile is an unnerving thing these days. Still, I smiled at her when she turned, and she reached out and put her hand under mine, making me jump.

“Classy,” she said, meaning I did not look like the kind of person who would paint my nails. Purple this week, with diagonal white stripes. I snatched my hand back. What on earth was she doing here? How much did she know?

“I do it for Maddy,” I said.

Norma held my gaze. “Who is Maddy?”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for All the Water in the World includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Maddy is sixteen. Smart, funny, and profound, she has loyal friends, a mother with whom she’s unusually close, a father she’s never met, devoted grandparents, and a crush on a boy named Jack. Maddy also has cancer. Living in the shadow of uncertainty, she is forced to grow up fast.

All the Water in the World is the story of a family doing its best when faced with the worst. Told in the alternating voices of Maddy and her mother, Eve, the narrative moves between the family’s lake house in Pennsylvania; their home in Washington, DC; and London, where Maddy’s father, Antonio, lives. Hungry for experience, Maddy seeks out her first romantic relationship, finds solace in music and art, and tracks down her father. With voices that range from tender to funny, despairing to defiant, this novel is an unforgettable portrait of the mother-daughter bond, and the experiences that change us forever.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. On the first page of the novel, Eve looks out over a lake and observes that “to have a child is to have a twofold mind” (page 5). How does the structure of All the Water in the World reflect this idea?

2. From the lake house to Frank Lloyd Wright’s house Fallingwater, places play an important role in this novel. What does the lake house mean to Eve and to Maddy? How does each of their relationships to it change over the course of the novel?

3. The reader first meets Maddy in the coziness of her room. In the scene when her friend Fiona drops by, how do Maddy’s surroundings and preoccupations reflect those of a healthy teenage girl, and how are they different?

4. Like many mothers and teenage daughters, Eve and Maddy are unusually close. How do they express their affection for each other? What about their annoyance? Does their intimacy make Maddy’s ordeal easier or more difficult to manage? In what ways?

5. Compare the parent/child relationships in this novel: Maddy and Eve, Eve and her parents, and Maddy and her grandparents. To what extent are their dynamics shaped by their individual personalities, and to what extent are they shaped by the circumstances of Maddy’s illness?

6. Eve is a single mother. Why has she kept Maddy’s father, Antonio, away from Maddy? Why is Maddy so interested in building a relationship with him?

7. Describe the relationship Maddy and Antonio develop over email. What’s the tone of their exchange? What does each choose to reveal and to keep private?

8. Consider Maddy’s relationship with Robin, her mother’s partner. What role does he play in her life, and in Eve’s?

9. Through her friendship with Jack, Maddy is drawn to climate-change activism. What compels her about the issue? Does she see it differently than other sixteen-year-olds do?

10. Why is it important that Jack and Maddy knew each other as children? How does their dynamic change over the course of her illness?

11. Maddy has always loved a statue called Serenity in Meridian Hill Park. What is it about this figure that appeals to her? Why does she end up being inspired to use the statue in her art?

12. Religion and spirituality are another strong theme in All the Water in the World. Why is Maddy looking for meaning? What does Maddy enjoy about her grandparents’ church? After all her questioning, does she ever come to a conclusion about spirituality?

13. Why does Eve go to London? Is she being honest with herself about her motivations? Why does she bring her young colleague Alison? What does she see in Alison that others don’t?

14. When Eve and Antonio try to recall a difficult conversation of many years’ past, they have very different memories of it. What does that reveal about time and the nature of memory? If they’d understood each other better then, what might have happened?

15. How does Eve’s trip to London complicate her relationship with Robin? With Maddy’s voice in her head, how does she feel about herself afterward?

16. Over the course of the book, how does your understanding of Eve and Maddy’s relationship change? Does it depend on who’s narrating? Can you point to an example?

17. When did you realize what the outcome of Maddy’s treatment was? How and why does the author conceal this?

18. At the end of the novel, as Eve and Maddy’s two voices come together, how did you understand their relationship, their ability to communicate with each other, and their love? What does Maddy mean by “anything good” (page 342), and why is she determined to communicate that to Eve?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Maddy loves Fallingwater, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. If there’s one close to you, visit a Frank Lloyd Wright house and journal about your trip.

2. Read other books with characters facing illness, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, and Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing.

3. Read other novels about strong mother-daughter relationships like Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and Ann Patchett’s Patron Saint of Liars.

4. For more information about Karen Raney and All the Water in the World, visit

About The Author

Photograph © Simon Weller

Karen Raney recently gained an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, with a distinction and was awarded the 2017 Pat Kavanagh Prize for All the Water in the World when the novel was still a work in progress. Born in Schenectady, New York, Raney attended Oberlin College, graduated from Duke University, and worked as a nurse before moving to London to study art. She lives in London, and teaches at the University of East London.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (August 6, 2019)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982108694

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

"A poignant story, centered on a mother and daughter who is dealing with a serious illness. Through emotive prose, Raney examines their relationship and how the impacts of the illness ripple through the family."
—Schenectady Daily Gazette

“In the midst of dealing with her relationship with her mother, learning to love for the first time, and all of the pains of being 16-years-old, Maddy is also diagnosed with cancer. Told between alternating chapters from Maddy and then her mother’s perspective, the story is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking.”
—Debutiful, 6 Debut Books to Read This August

“Domestic-fiction fans and readers who loved YA novels like John Green's The Fault in our Stars (2012) and Nicola Yoon's Everything, Everything (2015) will fall for All the Water in the World, which is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. Unafraid to probe the complexities of parenthood and partnership, Raney is an author to watch.”
Booklist, starred review

“An exquisite tracing of the tangled lines of mother-daughter love, loss, and grief.”

“Raney’s ardent debut examines love and loss through the eyes of Maddy, a vibrant 16-year-old girl diagnosed with cancer, and Eve, her loving mother… Raney’s pleasing tale is a deep, genuine investigation of memory, the pain of loss, and the strength of a mother’s love.”
Publishers Weekly

"All The Water in the World is a book about life and death, joy and grief fused together, both affirming and heartbreaking. In Eve and teenage Maddy, Karen Raney has created a mother-daughter relationship as fraught and passionate as any in recent memory. 'Do everything all at once' is Maddy's philosophy as well as the motto of this kinetic and beautiful book."
—Darcey Steinke, Author of Flash Count Diary and Easter Everywhere

“With a lyric and suspenseful intensity reminiscent of Sue Miller, Karen Raney has written an astonishingly moving novel about the boundaries and boundlessness of life and love.”
—Joanna Hershon, author of A Dual Inheritance and The Outside of August

“An extraordinary achievement for a first novel: tender, heartfelt and heart-breaking."
—Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

"Karen Raney is a writer of rare gifts—nuanced characters, shimmering prose, and a riveting story. All the Water in the World is heart-rending in its power and gorgeous in its telling, a deeply rewarding and wholly unforgettable debut novel."
—Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This and Corpus Christi

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

You may also like: Debuts Perfect for Book Clubs