FEATURE: So Much for That by Lionel Shriver – what is a human life worth? A Review By Kylie Ladd

by |March 24, 2010

Sharp-eyed followers of our Ten Terrifying Questions will know that Kylie Ladd, author of After the Fall, is an unabashed Lionel Shriver fan so she was the perfect person to be a guest reviewer for Shriver’s stunning new novel, So Much for That.

Kylie is currently packing her life into boxes for a move to the tropical north of Western Australia. On the strength of her review, I am going to have to ask her to fish out my copy of So Much for That and return it. Shriver is famous for her harrowing, psychologically astute tales and this one sounds like her typical Rubik’s Cube take on modern times. Can’t wait!

Now, over to Kylie to tell you all about it.

Lionel Shriver has long been a favourite author of mine, and thus I have to confess that I didn’t come to her latest novel, So Much for That, as objectively as a reviewer probably should. We Need To Talk About Kevin, which was feted worldwide and won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, is one of the most intriguing, complex and sometimes downright scary books I have ever read, a sophisticated study of the psychology of both a teenage mass-murderer and of motherhood. Shriver’s follow-up, The Post-Birthday World, would also make it into my personal top twenty, if only for its cunning parallel narratives exploring the divergent paths our lives can take following one central choice.

All that said however, I must admit the premise of So Much for That initially left me quite cold. Shepherd Knacker is a middle-aged American man dreaming of what he calls the Afterlife, where he will ditch his job along with his middle-class comforts and responsibilities, to live self-sufficiently on a small island off the coast of Africa. Shepherd has been planning his escape for at least the last decade, and as the novel opens, he is packing his bags, determined to leave whether his wife Glynis and son Zach decide to come with him or not.

Then Glynis, unaware of his plan, arrives home to announce that she has just been diagnosed with mesothelioma, an especially virulent form of cancer, and thus needs Shepherd to remain at work so his employee-sponsored health insurance will cover her treatment.
This is a timely novel given the current debate over health care reform in the United States. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure I would particularly enjoy reading five hundred pages largely concerned with the appalling intricacies and inequities of the American health insurance system. It is a testament to Shriver that I did. The author presents us with a variety of characters whose lives are affected and even determined not simply by their medical conditions, but also by how much insurance they have access to: Glynis, whose treatments quickly deplete Shepherd’s million-dollar nest egg earmarked for his escape; Flicka, the teenage daughter of Shepherd’s best friend, who suffers a rare genetic condition requiring, conversely, round-the-clock care but also that both her parents must work full time to in order to maintain their health coverage; Shepherd’s father, Gabriel, a retired preacher with no insurance who is left marooned in a public nursing home when he breaks his leg.

In many ways, So Much for That is a very black and white book. Readers will boo the baddies- the health insurance companies and system, alongside Shepherd’s hideously selfish sister Beryl- while cheering the good guys- Shepherd, Glynis, Gabriel and Carol, Flicka’s mother-in their various battles with illness and bureaucracy. Yet there are also plenty of shades of grey: Flicka refuses to play the role of “well-adjusted, sunny disabled kid”, and Glynis’s struggle to come to terms not only with her mortality but also the way she has wasted her potential as a metalsmith is incredibly moving.

Shriver can be somewhat wordy and didactic at times, and there are periods in the middle of the book where Shepherd threatens to be too good and caring a spouse to be true. These are only minor criticisms however, and her central question- how much a human life is actually worth- is thoughtfully and unswervingly examined.So Much for That is both a richly intelligent and entertaining read, a fine addition to Shriver’s already impressive body of work. And I may be biased, but if you can make it through the health care statistics and the financial statement at the start of each chapter detailing Shepherd’s rapidly dwindling resources,  the denouement of the novel is simply perfect.

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  • March 25, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Sorry Toni- no way are you getting it back! Besides, it’s all underlined now- I’m sure you wouldn’t want it like that….

    • toniwhitmont

      March 25, 2010 at 9:05 pm

      Thought it was a long shot. And you are right – there is nothing more distracting than someone else’s margin notes. Looks like I’ll have to get myself a pristine new copy.

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