Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lionel Shriver's So Much For That Makes It All Worth It In the End

In her novel So Much For That, Lionel Shriver writes:
"You know, these movies..."[Shep] was groping. "Remember how sometimes, in the middle, the movie seems to drag? I get restless, and take a leak, or go for popcorn. But sometimes, the last part, it heats up and then right before the credits one of us starts to cry - well, then you forget about the crummy middle, don't you? You don't care about the fact that it started slow, or had some plot twist along the way that didn't scan. Because it moved you, because it finally pulled it together, you think, when you walk out, that it was a good movie, and you're glad you went." (404)
As Goodreads member Aaron John Curtis said in his review of this novel, "Lionel Shriver could have been talking about this book."

So Much For That aims to take on several heavy topics: the health care system in America, terminal cancer, Americans' affection for lawsuits, children with disabilities, large corporations, the art world, the housing boom, government taxes, elder care. And to some degree (sometimes too much of a degree), Shriver does indeed delve into those subjects. She has a lot to say in this 448 page tome printed in tiny font -- a lot.

But Shriver's soapboxing was not what made me enjoy this book. Does she make a lot of excellent points? Absolutely. Are some of those excellent points seemingly conflicting (as they often are in real life)? Absolutely. But reading "issue" novels never appeals to me. Jodi Picoult, for all her fans, is not someone whose works I choose to read. I feel as though I understand my own point of view on most controversial topics, as I would guess most readers do. Either you feel one way, or you vehemently disagree; a fictional novel most likely won't change your mind.

Shriver does employ her "soapboxing," as I called it, as a successful method of characterization in the novel, however. Main character Shep's best friend Jackson is a ranter. Meaning,  he enjoys nothing better than a good rant. These rants take on a life of their own at some points in the novel (and, truthfully, become wearing), but in doing so Shriver paints a perfect picture of who Jackson is and who he is not.

Jackson is not the only dynamic, (and -- dare I say it) likeable character in So Much For That. I found the book chock full of characters I loved. That's not to say they were "good." Oh, no. Shriver make sure that each and every character has both good points and extraordinary flaws. Even perfect Shep, as readers will come to think of him eventually, attempts to abandon his family in the novel's opening pages. Glynis, his wife, is both a terrible hag (finding joy solely in others' misfortune) and a sympathetic character as she fights a rare cancer. Her interactions with Jackson's daughter alone will win you over.

And Jackson's daughter -- she is perhaps my favorite of all. Sixteen-year-old Flicka was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called familial dysautonomia (FD) as an infant. As a result, she can't produce tears, swallow normally, balance properly as she walks, among many other symptoms. However, learning to live with FD has made Flicka feisty rather than downtrodden. She curses like a sailor, talks back to her parents as much as any teenager would, and fights for independence on a daily basis. Both hilarious and heartbreaking, Flicka is as good a character as any author has ever written.

So what's the story? In essence, Shep Knacker has saved his entire adult life for the payoff -- the "Afterlife," as he calls it. He and wife Glynis have taken "research trips" (never vacations) all over the world in search of the perfect "Afterlife" location. Shep has finally decided on an island off the coast of Tanzania called Pemba. After the sale of his handyman company to the tune of a million dollars, Shep is ready to depart. However, things fall apart when his wife reveals that she has cancer -- and she needs his insurance for treatments. What ensues is beautiful, heartbreaking, wallet-emptying fight for her life -- and, in the end, for their marriage.

The rest of the quote above is: "See Gnu [pet name for Glynis]?" he promised. "We can still end well." Because, you see, the paragraph works as both a description of Shriver's novel and for life itself. Sometimes we get restless in the middle, tired of the mundane, people who annoy us, relationships and life goals that don't go according to plan. But in the end, "you're glad you went. . . . [because it] can still end well."


  1. I liked this book. And you are so right, her passage completly describes it. What I thought would be a good book ended up being a great book for me.

  2. Yes, it is a great book. I had never read Shriver before -- in fact, I abandoned "We Need to Talk About Kevin." I picked this book up solely because of the Tanzania reference, loved it initially, then got a little lost in the middle. But the ending makes it SUCH an excellent book that you forget about the parts in the middle that dragged just a bit.



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