So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
This book couldn’t have a more appropriate title… on so many levels; literally in the financial aspect, abstractly in the characters emotional cost, and in a sarcastic, “I guess I showed you” sort of way. So Much for That is about the exorbitant cost of health care in the Untied States, caring for terminally ill patients, dysfunctional marriage, and surgical procedures to enhance body image. The story revolves around two families: Shep Knacker is in his early 50’s and is preparing to retire and move to a remote island with his family and his life savings… an amount which is announced boldly at he beginning of each chapter. Unfortunately, the day he buys the airline tickets and is ready to pack his bags, his wife Glynis shares her news that she has mesothelioma- a rare, deadly form of asbestos-related cancer.
Juxtaposed with the Knacker’s dilemma, Shep’s best friend Jackson’s teenage daughter Flicka was born with a rare debilitating hereditary disease Familial Dysautonomia. Her symptoms are getting worse every day. Jackson has no savings and- although his daughter gets adequate treatment- her health is on a downward spiral.
Sound boring? Sometimes the story does lag, but Shriver creates an interesting plot with a surprise ending. The plot may be the best feature, though her style of writing leaves a lot to be desired. It’s fine that Shriver wants to write novels of social significance, but she uses an extreme amount of dialogue to sermonize. She spends a lot of time telling the reader what they are supposed to think of the characters instead of showing characterization through actions. And when they do act, some scenes are so over exaggerated it seems like a parody of real life. So, while So Much for That does have strong character development, it’s not the strong point of her writing. Wikipedia reveals that Shriver prefers to create characters that are “hard to love”… a pure understatement since not a single one is likable.
Shep is the best of the bunch, although he takes pride in allowing himself to be unjustly used by everyone and then carelessly gloats about how kind and flexible he is.
His wife Glynis has no redeeming qualities- at least according to Shep. She’s uncooperative, inflexible, cold, vindictive, and a perfectionist… which pretty much means she does nothing with her life because if she feels that she cannot do something perfectly, she’s not participating at all. And after Glynis discovers she has cancer she is even worse, becoming acid-tongued and bitter.
Shep’s father is religious, but a pompous ass who loves to preach as long as he doesn’t have to follow his own advice. And Shep’s sister- a total loser- is rude, obnoxious, inconsiderate, and selfish.
Jackson’s wife Carol… well, he thinks she is perfect, but it was her genes that caused their daughter’s disease. Nevertheless, she is beautiful, efficient, intelligent, and the reader quickly learns Jackson should never have married her because he is too self absorbed to figure out how to live up to her standards.
Jackson is the worst of the characters because he is weak. He sees everything in black and white and divides people into 2 categories. You are either a Mooch (user – taker – cheat) or a Mug (a victim of the Mooch). But Jackson’s got one fundamental flaw in his theory… he has no category for the honorable, decent, problem-solving, productive, take-charge doer because deep down, Jackson feels so little control over the events in his own life. He can offer no solutions and his personal life is in shambles. He’s broke, can’t please his wife, has a stagnant career, hates his boss, and appears to have only one friend… Shep Knacker. And he states “Mugs are never motivated by VIRTUE but only by FEAR”. Which is a little scary and pathetic since he views himself as a Mug. He is a self-imposed victim! He sees every imperfection of life- in politics, government, social and cultural situations- and he spends all his time pointing these things out to anyone who will listen. Shriver appears to have detested Jackson’s ineffectual way of dealing with his problems. So much so that she castrates him in her story. So much for that!
I only mention all these character traits to demonstrate just how political the message is aside from the obvious themes.
One final note: this book was released just as ObamaCare went into effect in 2010. In the United States we had not yet experienced the ill effects of government-controlled insurance. Shriver is much like her character Jackson. She is quick to point out all the failings of the old system but offers no viable solution except maybe to completely drop out of society and leave the country or become a Mooch. Call me cynical, but I can visualize a sequel taking place 15 years later… failing health, depleted finances, Where’s my Medicare?, and back to the good old U.S. of A. The book could then just as well be titled Say It Isn’t So.
If you can look beyond all the hyperbole, you might enjoy the plot. So Much for That certainly brings to the surface some very controversial social and cultural issues, presenting provocative scenarios that render an interesting piece of Contemporary fiction.
Rated 4 Stars September 12, 2016
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