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.