Definitely on a roll here. At least if I check out so many books that the library cuts me off, most of them turn out to be good ones.
So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver (New York: Harper, 2010) isn't perfect, but it's a darned good read.
Summary: "Shep Knacker has long saved for 'The Afterlife': an idyllic retreat to the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Traffic jams on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway will be replaced with 'talking, thinking, seeing, and being' -- and enough sleep. When he sells his home repair business for a cool million dollars, his dream finally seems within reach. Yet Glynis, his wife of twenty-six years, has concocted endless excuses why it's never the right time to go. Weary of working as a peon for the jerk who bought his company, Shep announces he's leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her.
"Just returned from a doctor's appointment, Glynis has some news of her own: Shep can't go anywhere because she desperately needs his health insurance. But their policy only partially covers the staggering bills for her treatments, and Shep's nest egg for The Afterlife soon cracks under the strain.
"Enriched with three medical subplots that also explore the human costs of American health care, So Much for That follows the profound transformation of a marriage, for which grave illness provides an unexpected opportunity for tenderness, renewed intimacy, and dry humor. In defiance of her dark subject matter, Shriver writes a page-turner that presses the question: How much is one life worth?"
Opening line: "What do you pack for the rest of your life?"
My take: A bit polemic at times, but still an excellent novel. One review compared Shriver to Jodi Picoult in terms of having her finger on the zeitgeist, but I don't think I agree. Yes, the cost and structure of the U.S. health care system is looming large in the public's mind right now, and occasionally, it seems like Shriver's a bit too heavy-handed in working her opinions into the text. (For the most part, though, she manages convincingly by making Shep's best friend and colleague, Jackson, One of Those Guys who likes to rant, especially about things medical and insurance-related.) But her plot and characters are far more nuanced and believable. Perhaps there's no better example than Glynis, who's pretty much the antithesis of every other couldn't-have-happened-to-a-nicer-person, critically ill character I've come across. We get the sense that even before her diagnosis, Glynis, a less-than-productive metalsmith, was never big on warm and fuzzy. In the throes of mesothelioma, she's sarcastic, angry, and often downright nasty, unsettling her visitors by her refusal to be a good patient or indulge in banal homilies. She's also in extreme denial as to the gravity of her illness, refusing to hear updates from Shep or her doctor about her odds, and always hoping each new treatment will turn things around, even as she grows steadily weaker. Likewise, the couple's children are a few steps away from your standard-issue big-eyed cherubs. Despite her Dartmouth degree, twenty-something Amelia continues to accept Mom & Dad's financial support, working at a low-paid publishing job, and being generally self-absorbed. Younger brother Zach, who's in high school, seems to live his entire life online, leaving his well-wired bedroom only long enough to microwave frozen foods he then carries back to the screen.
If the immediate Knacker household weren't enough, medical complications abound outside its walls as well. Jackson's elder daughter, 17-year-old Flicka, was born with familial dysautonomia; she can't cry, eats and swallows only with difficulty, and otherwise confronts one medical crisis after another. Like Glynis, to say she's not your typical plucky, sweet sick kid is putting it mildly. Meanwhile, younger sister Heather feels so overshadowed by Flicka's illness and her classmates' prescriptions for Ritalin and Prozac that her doctor and parents collude to feed her sugar pills under a made-up name. Jackson feels perpetually unworthy of Carol, his accomplished and beautiful wife -- so much so that he undergoes cosmetic surgery of the most intimate kind to surprise her, with devastating results. And then there's Shep's father, Gabe -- a retired New Hampshire pastor, who lands in a nursing home with a broken leg, and contracts an antibiotic-resistant C. diff infection that threatens to kill him slowly and shamefully.
As I said, there are problems with the book. While the characters are interesting, so many of the ones closest to Shep are, frankly, so unpleasant that it's hard to see what's in the relationships for him. Are they, somehow, reacting to Shep's behavior? Has their personality changed over time? Likewise, some of the background So Much for That asks us to accept has what New York Times reviewer Leah Hager Cohen calls dubious implications: "the paradox of a 'freedom' wholly dependent on the exchange rate between the Tanzanian shilling and the United States dollar — laying aside, too, the dubious implications of a white American seeking to shed his 'slave' status by purchasing land on the cheap and building a home in Africa." And I can't help but agree with Cohen's observation that in places, Shriver's dialogue "[seems] more suited to an editorial on the health care debate than to an intimate exchange between mournful son and ailing paterfamilias," and "at times these prodigiously researched and exhaustively argued critiques read more like excerpts from a position paper." Finally, while the ending was reasonably satisfying (and far less devastating than that of We Need to Talk About Kevin), it was also a bit too tidy and implausible.
That didn't stop me from staying up late last night to finish the book, though.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.