SO MUCH FOR THAT by Lionel Shriver

Shriver I just finished Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, and frankly don’t know where to start. Like the other two books I have read by Shriver (The Post-Birthday World and We Need To Talk About Kevin), So Much For That is an intense read, one that will undoubtedly have reverberations for me for months and years to come.

So Much For That is Shriver’s much-discussed exploration of our modern healthcare system, as told through the story of Glynis and Shep Knacker, a middle-aged couple living in Westchester. Shep, a handyman who made a small fortune after selling his business, is toiling away in a demeaning job and biding his time until he can begin The Afterlife – the retirement to an exotic Third World destination that he has been planning for many years. Glynis, his sharp-edged and difficult wife, is diagnosed with mesothelioma just when Shep has finally decided to make The Afterlife a reality. This confluence of Shep’s finally deciding to leave his responsible, financially overcommitted life just when Glynis is most dependent on that responsible life and its accompanying (though vastly insufficient) health insurance is what sets Shriver’s novel in motion – with riveting, horribly disturbing, yet ultimately redemptive results.

I think Shriver is a brilliant writer, as I’ve written here before. She is so thoughtful, opinionated, and eloquent that her books are almost like sucker punches at times – they get you right where you are most sensitive, and leave you reeling. I’ve read some reviews of So Much For That that criticize her for using the book as a soapbox for her opinions about health care and the cost of saving, or simply preserving lives, and I’ve read others that call her anti-American and self-indulgent. So what? Whether you agree with her politics or her stance on health care reform, her incisive and “searing” (says the book jacket) exploration of Glynis’ diagnosis and treatment for cancer is powerful and thought-provoking, and ultimately very sad.

I haven’t even gotten to the secondary characters – Shep’s ailing father, his leech of a sister, or his best friend Jackson and Jackson’s daughter Flicka, who suffers from a rare degenerative disease called familial dysautonia. These characters aren’t particularly likable, but they are well-drawn and complex, and contribute richly to the book. However, Glynis’ experience throughout the book, and how her cancer affects Shep and their marriage, was the most powerful part to me.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but I think anyone who knows someone who has lived with cancer (and who doesn’t at this point?) should read this book. It is not a difficult or boring book, as I feared it might be based on the topic, but it is a tough one in other respects. Yet totally worth it.

My only quibble is with the ending (as usual). It tied up a little too neatly, and the redemption at the end was a bit too simplified for me.

I heard Shriver speak about this book a few months ago at Politics & Prose – here is a recap. The post is definitely more meaningful now that I’ve read the book.

Ok, now I want to talk about this book – who has read it?


  • September 10, 2010 - 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m still near the beginning of this book but so far I absolutely agree with you in every aspect. Didn’t think I could ever love another Shriver novel as much as “Kevin,” but this one is fabulous also. Yesterday on “Fresh Air,” I heard Maureen Corrigan say that the great female novelists writing about contemporary domestic life were Allegra Goodman, Sue Miller and Lionel Shriver.

  • September 10, 2010 - 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I have some issues with health care and they’re not even related to cancer. My son has an auto immune disorder and we have to wait to see if the insurance company will pre-approve the treatment the doctor has recommended before we proceed. It seems the insurance company is our health care provider. I’ll get off of my soapbox and say that I have a feeling I could relate to this book.

  • Susan
    September 10, 2010 - 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I read this book earlier in the summer and thought it was great: thought provoking, scathing, upsetting, and also funny at times. As a Canadian who now lives in the U.S. and has pretty crappy health care coverage, I had an interesting perspective on the story. I didn’t mind the ending but I can see how it might seem too convenient. However, the last line in the book actually made me laugh out loud, which was a nice way to finish up after all the tough content.

  • September 10, 2010 - 10:41 pm | Permalink

    @Nancy – would agree re: Lionel and Sue Miller. Haven’t read any AG yet.
    @Kathy – yes, I think you will relate to this book. Sorry to hear about your son and the insurance company – it must be very difficult.
    @Susan – I am finding that I enjoy the ending more, the more distant I get from the book.

  • September 11, 2010 - 8:09 pm | Permalink

    I have been wanting to read a Shriver book for a while and have a special interest in health care – this seems the perfect combination! I am happy to see a positive review of this book – I have read many negative ones so far.

  • September 12, 2010 - 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had this one on my shelf for review since it came out and haven’t gotten to it. I’ll have to rectify that soon. Thanks for the review!

  • September 12, 2010 - 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Loved the Kevin book. My book club is reading this one next month–I hope to begin reading it soon.

  • Kiki
    September 13, 2010 - 6:44 pm | Permalink

    About to start reading this for book group. Loved Kevin and Post Birthday World.

  • September 14, 2010 - 4:12 am | Permalink

    I’ve read about four Shriver novels, and I will always love Post-Birthday, if only because it was so personal to me when I first read it. Kevin just blows me away every time I think about it.
    However, I’ve been iffy about dipping into this one. When Shriver gets political, I’m just wary. It’s selfish of me, I know.

  • September 19, 2010 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I love books that have a political element to them. I think this comes from the fact that I’m a poli sci minor. And I love hearing different political ideas whether or not I agree with them. Because these are issues that we should be thinking – health care is a big deal! This is sadly actually my first time hearing about Shriver’s writing but now I’m definitely going to be picking up some new books!

  • Len
    September 28, 2010 - 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for adding another one to my TBR list Gayle. 🙂
    I LOVED Kevin and was a little ambivalent about Post-Birthday World. If So Much for That falls somewhere between the two, it’ll be a great read.

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