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?