When I started reading Lionel Shriver’s work this year, naturally I gravitated towards We Need To Talk About Kevin, as I had heard some very scary and impressive things about it. It was a book that knocked me backwards with its force, and I was hooked. Next I read So Much for That for a TLC Book Tour, and was once again impressed with Shriver’s capacity for wit and wounding all in the same narrative. When my book club Books, Babes, and Bordeaux decided on this for our selection, I was beside myself with joy. I can’t seem to get enough of the woman’s writing and was eager to see what she would do with this very unusually constructed and intriguing tale. While decidedly less aggressive than the other two Shriver books I read, this book had a personal impact that I couldn't ignore, for how many of us can’t relate to the pondering of a life that we may have either narrowly avoided or artlessly embraced?
While Irina is living with Lawrence, there’s a noticeable lack of commitment in their relationship, a fact that endlessly niggles at Irina, though she prefers not to think about it directly for fear of disappointment. Lawrence is steadfast and loyal but he’s a decidedly unromantic partner. I cringed with embarrassment when I discovered the sexual aspects of the couple’s lives and felt so humbly sorry for Irina that I was uncomfortable with Lawrence from that point forward. It almost seemed that Lawrence was more of a strict father to Irina in lieu of a real paramour to her. When Irina’s story bifurcates into two separate storylines, the sections dealing with Lawrence made me feel just as hopeless as Irina felt about the prospects of their relationship together. Hear me out. Lawrence was not a bad guy, just an uninspired and bossy one. He doted on Irina and showered her with compliments on her work, but their relationship was just so devoid of passion that Lawrence was a constant source of annoyance to me. As the story of Lawrence and Irina plays out, it’s one of endless frustration and unmet desires, a story that felt hopeless in all its trappings.
In Irina’s other life, as it were, she has kissed Ramsey and must leave Lawrence behind to begin a new life with him. This is a life of unadulterated passion and indulgence of every whim. But there are problems with this life too, for Ramsey is a very egocentric man who is only capable of being charming when he’s being adored. The fights and arguments that Irina and Ramsey engage in are horrendous and terrible, for Ramsey is also an intensely jealous and selfish man. It seems there’s a price to pay for passion, and though Ramsey and Irina have a tremendous chemistry and the sex and intimacy are off the charts, living with the man causes Irina to totter between helpless states of intense joy and satisfaction and boundless states of discomfort and alienation. Another problem is that Ramsey cannot and will not ever discuss anything of importance other than snooker, a game that Irina finds dull and boring after her first initial flush of appreciation for it. I disliked Ramsey a great deal, for within him was the capacity for great cruelty and indifference that was never satisfied. It was a life that was full of inconsistency and ego-stroking for Irina, and though there was immense gratification for her, there was also abuse and heartbreak.
What I found so interesting about this book was Shriver’s capacity for understanding the human condition in all its nuances. She poses some pressing questions to her readers by inveigling them in Irina’s story. Is it better to love or to be loved? When we give up a life in which we’re not happy, who’s to say we’re making a change that will make a difference in the long run? Even more profoundly, this book forced me to ask questions about my own life. Has there ever been a time when I chose a direction in my life that took me to unparalleled new ground? In the deepest parts of my heart, I know I have, and luckily for me, my new directions were a lot more rewarding than Irina’s ever were. It was with great skill that Shriver plundered the emotional closet of my life and her characters’ lives, letting the skeletons out for all to see. The book’s resolution crystallized the unpredictability of those decisions that we make in the heat of the moment that can change our lives forever.
Shriver is well on her way to becoming my favorite author, and part of what I love about her writing is not only its exceptional artfulness but her ability to morph each story she tells into its own new and spectacular shape. No two are the same and no two deal with the same issues. This is a longer book, so those looking to read it should make some time for it, but be aware that you will be well rewarded for doing so. It was a very contemplative and erudite road to have traveled, and I enjoyed it immensely. A great and very smart read. Highly recommended!