I’m posting this as a “mini review” because, unfortunately, I don’t have the book available to consult as I write this up. I had to return it to the library, as it was overdue.
I picked up So Much For That by Lionel Shriver because I had noticed that it popped up on many year-end “Best of 2010” lists. I hadn’t read any of Shriver’s books before. The book is quite worthwhile and well written, but I must admit that I found So Much For That very difficult to read. The primary subjects of the book– cancer, death and other difficult health issues — are by their very nature not easy nor comfortable.
The book centers on a couple, Glynis and Shepard Knacker, as they deal with Glynis’s discovery that she has mesothelioma. Shriver does not skimp on the gross and harrowing aspects of cancer, as well she shouldn’t. The book would have been just drivel otherwise. Nonetheless, it was enormously hard to take in passage after passage describing Glynis’s physical suffering, nor was it easy to absorb both Glynis and Shepard’s emotional trials. Moreover, Glynis was not a sympathetic character. Again, I don’t fault Shriver at all for this; in fact, I prefer that characters are imperfect and three-dimensional. However, we see the ugly side of Glynis, and sometimes I found it difficult to sympathize with her. Also, we see the ugly side of Glynis’s friends and family, most of whom abandon her as her health fails. I couldn’t help feeling ashamed for them, and terrible for Glynis and Shepard, but it also made me wonder if I would measure up if put in a similar situation.
Glynis and Shepard are not the only characters who have a difficult storyline. Jackson Burdina, a good friend and co-worker of Shepard’s, also had an excruciating ordeal. I don’t want to give away the details of his personal problem, but suffice it to say it ended up reminiscent of Little Children in one particular, disturbing way. Besides this, Jackson’s teenaged daughter, Flicka, has a rare genetic disease that requires constant care. The whipsmart and caustic Flicka understands illness and suffering better than anyone in the book. Again, the Burdina storyline is not at all pleasant, but I suppose it had to be that way in order to be realistic.
Between Flicka and Glynis, the book examines at the dismal state of US health care — again, a pretty depressing topic. The bills and bureaucracy that the Knackers and Burdinas must deal with are exhausting. Despite this, I admire authors who effectively examine current events and political issues in fiction. This approach can so easily veer towards the preachy and lose the characters in the issues. However, Shriver manages to combine the political and the fictional personal in a way that shows how political problems, most often discussed in clinical and impersonal ways, actually cause serious harm to real, everyday people.
If you are a sensitive person, or you are only looking for uplifting books, don’t pick up So Much For That. I don’t even consider myself either particularly sensitive, and I usually like depressing books, and I still found it tough. Nonetheless, I’m glad I slogged through it. It made me think about (and appreciate) my own health and the health of my family, and consider how I may act when faced with the illness of a close family member or a friend (or my own illness, for that matter). Still, it is difficult to face your own mortality, or that of your loved ones. Don’t proceed with this book unless you are up for that challenge.