Tuesday, April 12, 2011

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver — 480 pgs

Book Cover
Shep Knacker has a dream. As a one-time business owner who has sold out for a million dollars, he now works a regular job, biding his time. Shep has been stashing away his fortune with the intent of fleeing to a tropical paradise to spend the rest of his days, which he calls The Afterlife. But when he decides to go there immediately, with or without his wife Glynis (her choice), he gets the surprise of a lifetime. Glynis announces that she has mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer, and that Shep’s money would be best applied somewhere else. As Shep deals with his incredibly ill wife, he finds out that his health care plan is really very paltry, and he must use his getaway fortune on the very expensive rounds of treatment his wife requires. Meanwhile, Jackson Burdina, Shep’s best friend and one-time business partner, is having problems of his own. Jackson has a teenage daughter who is afflicted by familial dysautonomia, a debilitating and progressive disease that’s slowly spiraling out of control. Jackson, a very unhappy man, is fond of regaling friends and even strangers with his ranting and raving about the political, social and economic problems in America, and his radical views begin to infect every conversation he has. Between the Knacker and the Burdina families, many ethical and intriguing issues are raised; not only about the characters and their plights, but about the plight of any one of us who may fall critically ill. In Shriver’s dark yet very recognizable world, the persistent struggle of the working class is wonderfully and mischievously elucidated, forming a story of painful beauty and unending strife.

I have to say that after reading We Need to Talk About Kevin a few months ago, Shriver has been on my list of authors to watch, and I’ve been very interested in reading her back list. When the review offer came from TLC Books, I didn’t hesitate for a moment, because although Shriver’s writing is as dark as it comes, it’s also incredibly penetrating and full of contradictions that leave her readers questioning not only the material, but themselves as well.

There’s no doubt that Shep Knacker is downtrodden. Even before Glynis’ announcement, Shep is the kind of guy who is forever taken advantage of, both emotionally and, more importantly, financially within the scope of the relationships he has. Though he loves his wife, the reader is given to understand that she’s a rather cynical and caustic woman, whom Shep always plays second fiddle to. Though Shep has a great fortune at his disposal, he continues to work for the man who bought his company and is treated like a serf by the passive aggressive man who he must now call his boss. Shep is what his friend Jackson would refer to as a chump, and though he longs to escape from his burdensome life, the announcement that Glynis has cancer puts Shep in a strange place. He immediately lets go of his desire to travel and feels that it’s important to do whatever it takes to make her well. What it entails, in fact, is eating away his nest egg and dredging the bottom of his financial pool of resources. But it’s not like he has any other choice, and once I began to understand just the type of guy Shep was (solid, dependable, morally upstanding) I knew there was no other way he would respond. Shep is the everyman who will do anything for his friends or family, and it was very sad to see his dreams wash away once Glynis’ condition came to light. The fact that he chose to stay and fight was only one of the things that made me admire him.

More interesting to me was the secondary plot that involved Jackson and his family. From my perspective, they were living in a nightmare world of feeding tubes, medication upon medication, and a surly attitude that all revolved around his ailing daughter. While I was reading about all of this, I kept asking myself questions about Jackson’s attitude and radical leanings. Was his daughter’s illness and the lengths they had to go to keep it under control the impetus for his ire, or was it all incidental? Secretly, I believed Jackson loved his daughter’s moroseness because it mirrored his own, but there was no doubt that the girl needed therapy. In addition, Jackson is dealing with a troubled marriage, and although it was troubled in a way that was very different than what the Knackers had going on, it was troubled nonetheless. The final resolution for Jackson left me very upset and shocked, and I couldn't help but expend a lot of thought and sympathy over his plight.

The one thing that bothered me about this book was its relentless push of the issues it discusses. Mostly it centered on the state of health care in America, and in that rushing maelstrom, Terry Shaivo, Medicare, insurance companies and the government all made their wicked appearance. This issue-spouting mostly came from Jackson’s rants, but it was littered throughout the book, and at times felt indiscriminate and overbearing. I get that Shriver has some problems with the American health care system and with the government, really I do, but this non-stop approach of bombarding the reader with it wore very thin after awhile. She takes her opinions on “mugs” and “moochers” very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I think it weighed down what would have otherwise been a five star book. Thinking back on it, Shriver makes some very good points, but by using Jackson as her mouthpiece, it all felt very aggressive and at times even whiny. This non-stop rant spoiled parts of the book for me, but after awhile, I was able to view it as a character with a predisposition for griping, and finally, I was able to read around it.

While this book was very heavy on the issues, the story it told was rather poignant and also very interesting to read. Shriver’s ability to capture her audience early on and hold them by the throat all the way through is not only impressive, but also unusually stimulating. She knows how to tell a hell of a story, and though it’s dark and very portentous, it kept me hooked into the narrative despite some slight misgivings. I was also surprised by the ending. I would recommend this to fans of Shriver and also to new readers because the book really gets to the heart of its characters and their motivations with unusual flair. Though parts of the book were morose, the execution of the story was really quite amazing. A fabulous read with a little gristle that may offend but will surely entertain.


Author Photo About the Author

Lionel Shriver is a novelist whose previous books include Orange Prize–winner We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World, A Perfectly Good Family, Game Control, Double Fault, The Female of the Species, Checker and the Derailleurs, and Ordinary Decent Criminals. She is widely published as a journalist, writing features, columns, op-eds, and book reviews for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist, Marie Claire, and many other publications. She is frequently interviewed on television, radio, and in print media. She lives in London and Brooklyn, NY.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, March 15th:In the Next Room
Wednesday, March 16th:Book Club Classics!
Thursday, March 17th:Man of La Book
Monday, March 21st:The Brain Lair
Monday, March 21st:Life Is A Patchwork Quilt
Thursday, March 24th:Stephanie’s Written Word
Friday, March 25th:Colloquium
Monday, March 28th:A Certain Bent Appeal
Tuesday, March 29th:Life in the Thumb
Wednesday, April 13th:Raging Bibliomania

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

27 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I have issues with our health care system as well, but I've lived with socialized medicine and I know it's not a great system either. It's fine to rage against a system as long as you present some viable alternatives. The book does sound thought provoking, but I think the author's agenda would get to me after a while.

Jenny said...

WHOA. I definitely had no idea Lionel Shriver was a woman, and now I can't imagine how I missed noticing that, when everyone and their mother has reviewed something of Shriver's. I'm so relieved I never tried to talk about Lionel Shriver to anyone.

Jenners said...

I'm a big Shriver fan and have this to listen to on audio. I appreciated your review...and have heard about the ranting from others as well. I'm curious to see what I think. She never writes the same book twice. If you haven't read it yet, I'd recommend The Post-Birthday World for your next Shriver. It was a really interesting read and probably my favorite of hers.

Trisha said...

This is like the "least serious" response, but... I totally have an after retirement plan, and I've told my husband he can come with me or not, his choice. :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard many good things about this book, but your review is quite thorough, as usual! Thanks!

Jenny said...

I've been interested in this book since it came out because of the issues it brings up, but I'd also heard that the issues or beliefs are sort of shoved in your face and that's what's kept me from reading this. I prefer for the facts to all be presented in the story while still allowing me to come to my own decisions. Fantastic review!!

joanna said...

I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin, but have heard that the other books are weaker. Your review makes me reconsider, this particular storyline sounds very interesting indeed.

Geosi said...

An indeph review as always.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I know you and I have talked about Shriver, but just for the record, I think she is BRILLIANT. Despite my love for her (you must read The Post Birthday World NOW) I shied away from this one because I am not interested in her social commentary or rants on the healthcare system. Listen, I know it is an issue, but I feel like we are battered with it by the media. I read to escape!

TheBookGirl said...

I started to read We Need to Talk About Kevin some time ago, and found myself too disturbed to finish it. She is a talented writer, but I'm not much for books where the author hits you over the head with his/her agenda.

Swapna said...

Interesting review. I go back and forth on whether I want to review this book. I read her book The Post-Birthday World and it was interesting, but it definitely dragged.

Steph said...

I had a very similar reaction to you when it came to this book, as you know. There were glimmers of a good story there, but I felt that it was issue-heavy and personally I didn't feel like things picked up until 300 pages in or so! I know Shriver can do better than this, so while it wasn't exactly a bad book, I did find it disappointing in that respect.

nomadreader said...

I think I loved this one more than most. For me, the ending made it a five-star book. I was glad to see this one make the National Book Award finalists list last year, and it prompted me to read it. I loved it and look forward to reading more Shrive (starting with Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin!)

Suko said...

Very interesting post--and comments! I don't like ranting either, but what should we do, ignore the problems, or include them in contemporary fiction in order to bring to light the crucial need for better health care systems and management? Lionel Shriver sounds like Jodi Picoult in that she incorporates the important issues of our time in her work.

Amy said...

I have so many issues with our healthcare system and not only because I have such need for good healthcare. But I don't like being beat over the head by even issues that are very important to me. Thank goodness Shriver is an excellent and compelling writer and storyteller, too!

I confess I skimmed a lot of your review because I recently won this book and hope to read it soon but I have saved your review!

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I've never read anything by this author. I will have to check out this author. Sounds like an interesting read.

Lisa said...

I'm thinking this might make a really great conversation starter for my book club. What do you think? Would it cause things to heat up too much?

Marie said...

this sounds fabulous! :-)

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Great review, as usual. I can't comment on the American health care system, since I've never actually set foot on American soil. I'm still learning the ropes when it comes to these things. :)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I am off to try to get the audio from the library after reading your great review. I think this one might work for me.

Amy said...

First of all, I've obviously been remiss in reading blogs (and been away I guess) but I can't remember if I saw it before or remarked already, but I LOVE your site design!

This book sounds good but annoying. I mean, even though I agree to a large part with the views on your health care system, I think it would still really frustrate me. Whether I agree with something or not, relentless pushing of an agenda annoys me!

Erin said...

I might be behind here; I guess I haven't looked at Raging Bibliomania on its own site (instead of via Google Reader) for a bit. It looks GREAT! I love the new design!

I don't mind books that explore issues and ideas. Sometimes I even really like them. I don't often like being hit over the head with them, though, unless they're vital to the book and/or artfully done. Your review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, though, piqued my interest in Shriver and I do hope to read something by her at some point!

Darlene said...

This does sound really interesting. I ended up picking up We Need to Talk About Kevin based on your review but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I hope I do soon.

Matt said...

First of all I have no idea the author is a woman! This sounds like a rather grim, but true account of the state of healthcare this country is in. There had been raving reviews of Let's Talk About Kevin a while ago, which I have yet to read. IBook bloggers seem to consider her with high regard, in how provoking her novels are. Now I just have to decide which one to read first. Thanks for the great review.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

What a disappointment after your great experience with WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN - sounds like the author's agenda was shoe-horned in, to the detriment of the novel :(

Vasilly said...

This sounds like a good book but with the continuous rants about the health care system, I don't know if this will be a good fit with me. Great review (as usual)!

Heather J. said...

This sounds like a book that could raise some very heated discussion in a book club!

I'm glad you enjoyed it, though "enjoyed" might not be the right word for such difficult topics.

Thanks for being on the tour.

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