Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

Americans aren’t ready, financially and emotionally, when people die

I had mixed feelings about this novel. The set up was excruciating – I felt like my head was positioned between two clanging cymbals. Pages after pages of characters spouting polemics about the state of health care in America. Is this even a novel, I wondered? The only thing that kept me from quitting was that I didn’t want to quit a book two weeks in a row. So I stuck with it.

I’m glad I did. The novel is about Shep, a mild mannered millionaire (although a million dollars clearly means nothing nowadays) whose dilettantish wife Glynis gets cancer, destroying the frugal Shep’s dream of getting away from it all for a cheap Third World retirement. Shep, (who comes across like a doormat) spends his last dime fighting the incurable cancer (this action is not really motivated). All the while Glynis refuses to accept the fact she’s dying. Meanwhile’s Shep’s dad needs nursing home care, and family friend Flicka has an incurable genetic disease. The moral and financial dilemmas of each situation are explored quite effectively.  I actually learned quite a bit about health care.

In a way this novel reminded me of Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, in terms of the not so macho main character, although that story was executed with much more artistry.  It is also in the tradition of Upton Sinclair (not that I've ever read any Upton Sinclair).  A novel addressing a social problem - that of unfair and inefficient health care.

In the last third of the book, the story got much more compelling as we left off the sloganeering and the author turned her attention towards the family and the sensitive portrayal of Glynis’s death. One of the themes was our society's abandonment of the sick and dying. It made me resolve to be more diligent about keeping in touch with the ill.  So perhaps this novel achieved its moral purpose as well.

Was the painful setup worth the beautiful end? I am undecided whether I will ever read a Lionel Shriver novel again. If I do it won't be for a long time.

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