For his entire adult life, Shep Knacker has been planning for “The Afterlife”—an early retirement to some third world locale where he and his family can get by on a few dollars a day. His handyman business has kept his family comfortable, with enough to spare that he has been able to put aside a considerable nest egg. The sale of the business brought the nest egg to a total amount that would enable him to escape—finally. But in recent years his wife, Glynis, has lost her enthusiasm for The Afterlife. So Shep has continued to work for the new owner of his old business, waiting for the right moment to leave.
As Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That opens, Shep believes that moment has come. He’s bought three one-way tickets to Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania. His plan is to present Glynis and their son Zach with a choice. They can come or not. Either way, he will fly away tonight.
Unfortunately, Glynis has news that brings all Shep’s plans to a halt. She has cancer and needs Shep’s health insurance. So Shep stays, taking care of Glynis, physically, financially, and in any other way he can think of. Glynis is determined to survive, and Shep is determined to be the same reliable man he has always been. But the U.S. health care system being what it is, taking care of Glynis means watching his nest egg vanish.
Meanwhile, Shep’s best friend, Jackson, and his wife, Carol, are struggling to take care of their teenage daughter Flicka, who has a rare disease called familial dysautonomia. Flicka has an acerbic wit, which endears her to everyone who gets past her deformed face and constant health problems and takes the time to get to know her. Jackson is a less endearing character, prone to rant about the government, taxes, insurance, parking meters, and everything else at the slightest provocation.
With health care reform all over the headlines this year, I’ll confess that I’m weary of the debate. I’m one of those who believes the system is broken and that something needs to be done. Shep’s insurance problems, which in part came down his employer getting insurance on the cheap, rang true to me. In this country, the quality of your health care frequently comes down to what your employer can, or chooses to, provide. You may technically be able to choose your own doctor, but if that doctor isn’t on your insurance network, you’ll be paying a hefty amount. And sometimes the situation can be downright bizarre, even when you have good insurance. I once had an excellent plan that included one of the best doctors in my area but did not include the hospital where she had surgical privileges!
So yes, I think Shriver is onto a serious problem here. But I’m tired of hearing about it. That wouldn’t have to have been a problem for the book, had not the characters spent so much time in long discussions of the issue. Political discussions, usually in the form of Jackson’s rants, went on for pages and pages and pages and pages and … argh! Enough! These kinds of discussions can be interesting to participate in once in a while, but that doesn’t make them good reading.
The other problem with the long political tirades is that they made the characters themselves feel false. I started to get the impression that each character was developed merely to illustrate another facet of the problem. Terminal illness is covered in Glynis. Chronic disease, Flicka. End-of-life issues, Shep’s father. Failed elective surgery, Jackson. Hard work that gets you nowhere, Shep. Lack of responsibility (i.e., mooching off the system), Shep’s sister. There were moments when I felt like I was reading a Jodi Picoult novel, where characters are not so much people as representatives of a point of view.
But then… then… the novel takes a turn and becomes more interesting, downright absorbing even. Instead of being a political novel, it becomes a novel about the value of life and the meaning of happiness. This theme ran through the novel from the start but too often drowned out by all the rants. When the rants taper off in the last half of the novel, the more interesting ideas start to get more “page time.”
I found some of the sections about Glynis’s personal struggle with cancer, and Shep’s work as a caregiver, to be both moving and thought-provoking. I’ve never read Shriver before, but I could see in some of these passages why she’s so highly regarded as a writer. Here, for example, Glynis contemplates her state:
Another revelation: it had never been clear to her before that thinking was an effort. That thoughts required energy. It turned out that very few thoughts, once laboriously formulated, proved worthy of that energy. Even this one: she could have lived without it. And that was the standard for everything now: mere living, aliveness. Yet it was beginning to slip through her mental fingers what being alive was exactly. It was entirely possible, for example, that aliveness was primarily designed by the capacity to experience pain, in which case it was befuddling why the state was so highly prized.
At moments like this, Shriver takes on essential questions about life and its value. Is life worthwhile merely by virtue of not being death? What are we living and working for? Is mere survival enough? Is it even the best thing? When the book dwells on those questions, it’s a fascinating read. It’s too bad that these questions get overshadowed by politics.
I read this book because it was a finalist for the National Book Award. In some ways, this book and Parrot and Olivier in America are counterparts to each other. Carey buried the thematic ideas in his book too deeply, and Shriver put the ideas right on the surface, making it come across as preachy. Each book has significant flaws but also includes plenty of good stuff. So with three fiction finalists read, Great House remains my choice.
Other Bloggers’ Views
“I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book.” —Reading Matters
“Unfortunately I wasn’t a fan of this book – it felt like one long rant about the state of the US healthcare system.” —Farm Lane Books