So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

So much for that

Published: 2011 by Harper
My copy: Paperback borrowed from a friend

Memorable quote: “Because when you get sick, I think that’s the hardest part: living in a separate universe from everyone else, like having been exiled to a foreign country.”

Huge thanks to my friend Claire for lending me this gut-wrenching but brilliant read. In what might just be her best novel yet, Shriver boldly addresses another difficult subject: terminal illness and its cost both emotionally and financially. Shep Knacker has spent his whole life dreaming of escaping to an African island but just as he is poised to make the break his fantasy comes crashing down. His wife Glynis reveals she needs his health insurance since she’s just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Shriver specialises in creating characters who are not conventionally likeable but who nonetheless command our sympathy. I thought Glynis was wonderful in this respect: she’s prickly, bitter and vitriolic and it made a cathartic change to read about a cancer patient who doesn’t bear their considerable suffering like a saint but who rants and rages and blames the world at large, which felt like a much more realistic response.

Now couple Glynis’s ordeal with the story of Shep’s best friend Jackson, whose seventeen year old daughter suffers from a rare, debilitating disease that requires constant care, and this probably doesn’t sound like a particularly enjoyable read. Certainly the physical details are gruesome at times (guys I guarantee there’s one part which will have you squirming), and emotionally too it packs a punch: I was in floods of tears at one point. But it’s a testament to Shriver’s skill as a writer that ultimately So Much For That is not a grim and depressing read but one that is at different times shocking, engaging, inspiring, darkly comic (only Shriver could get her readers laughing at a topic like this) and above all, unexpectedly uplifting. It’s also (for myself as a British reader) a damning indictment of the American healthcare system and I closed the book feeling a renewed sense of gratitude for the NHS! Everyone should read this book: illness touches all our lives in some form or other and Shriver’s message not to shy away from it is such an important one.

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