‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver

SoMuchForThat

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 464 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Author Lionel Shriver never shies away from exploring big moral questions in her writing. In her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) she examined the nature versus nurture debate and posed one of the most alarming questions it is possible to pose: should a mother be blamed if her son murders his fellow classmates?

In The Post-Birthday World (2007) she looked at domestic security versus a life of adventure, and asked whether it was possible to lead a happier life by choosing passion over love.

In So Much For That, her latest novel due for UK release next week, she asks the biggest question of them all: how much money is one life worth? If you had the chance to lead a different, more fulfilling, life, even if it meant you wouldn’t earn much money, would you take it? Or, to put it more bluntly, if you were to get sick, how much would you be prepared to pay for medical treatment, even if you weren’t quite sure the medical treatment would work?

The story begins with Shepherd Knacker, a hardworking family man, announcing that he has an adventure in store for Glynis, his wife of 26 years, and Zach, his 16-year-old son. With almost a million dollars in his bank account (created by selling his handyman business and his house several years earlier), he’s just bought them all one-way air tickets to a tropical island off the coast of Africa. Here, free from the trappings of modern day America, the family will live in relative comfort — and obscurity — for the rest of their lives.

But sadly, this life-long dream cannot be fulfilled. Glynis has an announcement of her own: she has an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer.

The book, which is set largely in New York in 2005, follows the ups and downs of Glynis’ treatment and the ensuing outfall amongst family and friends, while Shep’s million dollar bank account shrinks to the point of no return. But Shriver is clever, and weaves two other stories, which also explore the moral question of a life’s worth, into the narrative — and to hammer the point home even more heavily, she has the Terry Schiavo case, in which lawyers argue whether Ms Schiavo, who lies in a persistent vegetative state, should be disconnected from her life support system, playing out in the background.

The first strand involves Shep’s best friend, Jackson, a man who rails against big government and spends most of his time ranting and raving about all the taxes he has to pay. Happily married to Carol, he has two children: Flicka, a feisty intelligent teenager, who was born with a rare genetic disorder (familial dysautonomia) which requires constant medical attention, and a younger daughter, Heather, who is put on a sugar-based placebo in order to “not feel left out”. As if his coping with his daughter’s illness is not enough, midway through the story, Jackson himself, falls prey to a botched operation for which he must pay in more ways than one.

The second strand involves the care of Shep’s elderly father, who is no longer able to look after himself. Despite the fact he’s lead a productive life, paid his taxes and owns his own home, the government won’t foot the bill for his assisted care. It is up to Shep to fund the shortfall. Given he’s also paying for his wife’s cancer treatment, his cash-strapped sister’s fuel bills and his adult daughter’s rent, is it any wonder he’s hurtling towards bankruptcy?

This might all sound like depressing stuff. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the book is just a thinly veiled excuse for Shriver to have a pop at the American medical and taxation system. But to interpret So Much For That as mere polemic is to miss the point. Yes, there are times when the dialogue reads like political venting, but there’s a bigger picture to focus on here (it’s important to note that the novel is set before the credit crunch, Obama’s presidency and his current health care bill reforms).

Just as Helen Garner’s Spare Room looked at the impact of cancer on a friendship, So Much For That looks at cancer’s impact on a marriage. And it examines how the trappings of modern life, with its heavy emphasis on consumerism and property ownership, counts for almost nothing when your health — and your life — is at stake.

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.

None of the characters are particularly likable: Glynis is spiky, bad-tempered and infuriatingly bad-mannered throughout; Jackson rants too much; Flicka is irritatingly obnoxious; and Shep, while sympathetically drawn, lets everyone treat him life a doormat and never calls anyone on their shit. But my god, they feel like real flesh-and-blood people, the kind who you probably work with or live next door to. Yes, they make mistakes, yes, they make morally dubious decisions, and yes, they fail to take responsibility for much of their actions. But I enjoyed being in their company and was sad when it all came to an end. Mind you, the book’s got a terrific conclusion that poses an entirely new set of moral questions. But I guess it wouldn’t be a Shriver novel without being fierce and intelligent, and fiercely intelligent all at the same time.

I know it probably seems uncanny to read such a brilliant novel so soon after Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, but Shriver’s So Much For That deserves just as much attention — and acclaim.

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30 thoughts on “‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver

  1. Great review! I’m reading this book right now and agree with you on many points. I love Shriver and went to see her speak here in Chicago last week, and got this book signed! I’m only about 200 pages in, but can’t wait to read the rest!

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  2. Glad to know you liked this book–and great review. Shriver’s one of my favorite writers, even though I don’t like all of her novels. Her stories can be hit and miss for me, but her storytelling always makes me breathless.

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  3. The only book I have read so far by this author is We Need to Talk about Kevin – and it still haunts me to this day. I should probably make more time to read all her works – most particularly this one!

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  4. Oh, well, there goes that theory… 😉
    I think because I know she lives in London (in fact, I’ve seen her several times — she’s a keen cyclist and lives near my office) I’d kind of filed her in my head as being eligible, but of course she was born in the States.

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  5. I should point out that this is nothing like “Kevin” so if you liked that one, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll like this one. However, that said, if you like great writing, great story-telling, great characters and the exploraton of moral issues, then this could be for you.

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  6. I’m definitely picking up your enthusiasm for this one! I have heard mixed things about it but I find Shriver’s writing fantastic and I am really interested in the subject matter of this one as I work in the Australian healthcare system and am interested in all debates and thoughts about this area.

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  7. I loved We need to talk about Kevin – it was so well controlled. But I didn’t read the next one, and hadn’t heard she had another one out. I’ll certainly look out for it.

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  8. It is very interesting to read your review as I disliked this book. It felt like one long rant about the US healthcare system. I didn’t like any of the characters and found all the illnesses they suffered to contrived, just to fit her healthcare argument. The ending was just cheesy too. It is amazing that two people can have such different reactions to the same book!

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  9. Do come back when you’ve finished and let me know your overall thoughts, Julie. I bet she was interesting to hear speak… I’ve long wanted to see her, but the one occasion I had tickets to hear her “in conversation” I got lost and couldn’t find the venue!

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  10. I’ve only read her recent stuff, so can’t comment on her earlier novels. I do like the way she makes you think… and the acerbic tone of her writing.

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  11. If you didn’t like Post Birthday World you might be underwhelmed by this one too. It has a much simpler structure but is written with the same fire and in a similar tone…

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  12. You’ll probably enjoy this one then, Karen. I love the way it looks at healthcare from different angles: those that need intense care for a terminal disease, those that need long-term care because they were born with a genetic condition, and end-life care, for the elderly. There’s also a little message there about not going off-the-grid and receiving treatment from backyard establishments…

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  13. I think she’s a fascinating writer. Very full-on and not afraid to tackle big subjects in a highly personal and very intelligent way. I’m sure she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like her.

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  14. Really? You didn’t enjoy it? I can see how you might think it was a rant, but the book isn’t solely focussed on the health care system, it’s about the value we place on our lives and how we live our lives: do we follow our dreams or become wage slaves? I didn’t think the illnesses were contrived — they were all real, all well researched and based on people that Shriver knows personally. Plus, I don’t think you need to like characters to like a book — do you? And did you really think the ending was cheesy? I thought it was uplifting but morally dubious, after all they’d ripped off the system to get the money to go away. That made me really question Shep’s integrity…and his strength of character.

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  15. I’m not sure there are all that many reviews out there yet… although there’s quite a few terrible ones on the Good Reads website written by people who clearly don’t “get” Shriver. I suspect the British newspapers will publish their reviews this coming weekend…

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  16. I see that the illnesses are all real and well researched, but I felt they were just added to illustrate her cause.
    The value we place on our lives just seemed like another way of saying that healthcare costs too much.
    I don’t need to like all the characters in a book, but it helps if I like one and also if I form a relationship with them before they fall ill. Starting a book with a terminal disease means that I sort of distance myself from them straight away as I don’t want to become attached to someone that is going to die. My mind works in weird ways!!

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  17. When Shriver talks about the value of life, I’m not sure she’s referring purely to a monetary value, because that’s what the medicine men/insurance companies do. They simple value life in terms of dollars or, more specifically, how much money they can make out of someone’s illness. Surely the message of the book is that we need to value life in different ways? The freedom to follow our dreams, to do work we find fulfilling, to help other people etc. Well, that’s the message I got out of it…
    But I admit, I’m sensitive to this whole topic, for personal reasons I won’t go into, so the book resonated on many levels for me.
    Given your last paragraph, I take it you never read The Spare Room? How about The Book Thief? LOL!

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  18. Perhaps because I’ve already worked out what is important in life, don’t join the daily grind and do only what I enjoy in life I found her whole argument patronising. She didn’t tell me anything new, but then I have no real experience of these illnesses and so perhaps it just didn’t resonate with me.
    I haven’t read The Spare Room, but did enjoy The Book Thief. I don’t think the Book Thief counts though as Death is already dead!

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  19. Great review Kim and this in fact shows what reaidng your thoughts can do as I didnt care for We Need To Talk About Kevin (though this may have been due to timing of when I read it more than anything) and didnt finish it but at some point I will retry it. Due to this and another review I was dubious about this but you have sold it to me, will have to give this a whirl sometime.

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  20. I’ve only seen one other review on a blog — and that was Jackie’s and she clearly didn’t like it. But I thought this was a very clever novel, filled to the brim with lots of different issues, not just healthcare, worth mulling over and thinking about. It’s got a healthy dose of black comedy in it, too. I did laugh out loud in a couple of places, so it’s not all doom and gloom and political ranting. It’d make a great book club selection!

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  21. I loved the book. I definitely didn’t see it as a total rant about the healthcare system. In fact, the character who rants the most isn’t exactly a hero or especially smart. I found it to be more about our culture overall and how we deal or don’t deal with death, illness, and selfishness. The healthcare stuff was in the foreground, but there were so many other things the characters touch on- consumerism, technology, narcissism, etc. Then again, I’m inclined to rant about the government.

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  22. Thanks for the comment, Wilson. I think you’re completely right: this is a book about contemporary culture and how we deal (or don’t deal) with so many aspects of our lives.
    I thought it was interesting this week to hear that Malcolm McClaren died of this particular cancer; I’d never heard of it before Shriver’s book.

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  23. Oh dear.
    By the way, thanks for highlighting Shriver’s essay on the Powell’s website. I really like this quote:
    “Obviously this novel is trying to highlight systemic inadequacies in American healthcare, which, when I began the book, was not slated for any sort of Congressional reform. At that time, Obama was an absurd long shot for the Democratic presidential nomination, and I’d no way of knowing that as this novel approached its release Barack Obama would be president and “healthcare” would be the biggest buzzword in American news.”
    And this one: “I never aimed to write a fictional polemic or a thinly disguised nonfiction treatise on the evils of private insurers. Thus, the novel engages with larger issues that afflict not just America but all Western healthcare systems, like the above: how much can we and should we spend to keep a single person alive?”
    Which kind of proves my point that to interpret this novel as merely a rant about healthcare is wrong: that was not Shriver’s sole intention.
    The essay, for anyone else who’d like to read it, is at http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=14549

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