So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

by eashmere

How much is a life worth? In So Much for That Lionel Shriver confronts us with this unsettling question. Best known for her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver changed her name from Margaret to Lionel at age fifteen. With similar wit and single-mindedness, Shriver applies the blowtorch to contemporary US attitudes towards illness and death.

One New York night, ‘optimist’, handyman, and kooky fountain builder Shepherd Knacker packs his toothbrush, English-Swahili phrase book and Swiss Army Knife. After years of planning, Shep is on the cusp of fulfilling his ‘Afterlife’ dream of escaping to the tiny clove-scented African island of Pemba – either with or without his wife of twenty-six years, Glynis.

When Glynis arrives home Shep’s plans evaporate. ‘I’m afraid I will need your health insurance,’ she announces. Glynis has been diagnosed with the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. Shep dutifully unpacks his suitcase and begins the harrowing journey into the complexities and inequities of the US medical system.

Next day, as Shep listens to Glynis’ enthusiastic and ‘famously expensive’ doctor detailing the ‘armoury’ of medications and chemotherapy ‘battle-plan’, he realises his mediocre job-linked health insurance won’t hold up in this cancer ‘war’. Uncomplainingly, he trudges through his demeaning job, ever mindful of his diminishing ‘Afterlife’ nest egg and inadequate leave entitlements. He teaches himself to cook for and wash his increasingly angry wife, who rails against other peoples’ expectations of how she should behave. Their son remains elusive. Their high-living daughter stays away. At night Shep wades through the ‘blizzard’ of insurance paperwork. A ‘cross between an events planner and an executive secretary’, he contacts family and friends. They file past once, pushing their own agendas onto the hilariously cranky Glynis, before vanishing.

Despite the various characters’ failings, Shriver never patronises. Having lost a ‘dear friend’ to this disease, she said recently she hopes this book will remind ‘well’ people to feel ‘grateful’.

As debility shrinks Glynis’ world, she continues to deny her impending death. However Shep begins to question the notion that terminal illness is a ‘battle’ where death represents a ‘personal failure’. What if death is accepted, and life’s remaining moments are savoured with honesty, humour and generosity?

This is a searing yet compassionate book. Shriver goes after the big issues fearlessly without casting judgment or stooping to sentimentality. The final chapter is one of the most satisfying I have ever read.

Published in the Northern Rivers Echo