The cover of Lionel Shriver’s new novel, So Much For That, features a beach paradise postcard, torn in half with the pieces tossed in opposite directions. This casting aside of an idyllic image isn’t just symbolic for Shep Knacker, a man who was prepared to drop everything and leave for the island of Pemba in his pursuit of his “Afterlife”- what he has worked and saved for his entire adult life. Instead, he finds himself in an alternative afterlife that involves caring for his cancer-stricken wife, attempting to navigate a health care system that is beyond complex and challenging, and watching the dollars fly out of his savings at more than an alarming rate. Shep and his family, along with the family of a close friend, are at the center of this book that completely blew me away.
To say that this is an affecting novel is a vast understatement. Within these 400+ pages are other subplots that also depict the effects of illness on families’ health, emotional wellness, intimate relationships and financial capabilities. Alternately shocking, tender, horrifying and heartbreaking, Shriver weaves together a story that often reads as social commentary, with multiple perspectives and opinions taking the lead. She writes with a palpable intensity, and even the characters who may have spent their whole lives sacrificing and accommodating others never wilt in the telling of the story. With a third person narrative voice, each character is presented, dissected and made to come to vivid life on the pages, even if they may be dying.
I can’t speak highly enough about the style of Shriver’s writing- it’s insanely intelligent with long-winded sentences that pack punch after punch, sometimes forcing me to go back and reread particular passages just to be sure I got it all, and the overall narrative is superbly presented. My only critique would be that the dialogue rang a little less than authentic at times for me, in that every single prominent character appears as incredibly smart as the author clearly must be. An odd critique, perhaps, and one that can certainly be turned into a significant compliment!
Featuring characters and a story line that ask uncomfortable questions, portray some of the darkest of life’s experiences and hold nothing back, really nothing at all, So Much For That adds up to a novel unique among books that attempt to address the too often difficult-to-address issues of relationships, dying, health care, money, and the worth of a life. While the graphic nature of this story and the language used within it may not fit every reader’s comfort zone, for me this was undoubtedly a Five Star Read, and a story that I will not soon forget.
Dawn can often be found with a book in her hand (and a tissue box nearby) or tap tapping away on her blog, my thoughts exactly.