So Much For That by Lionel Shriver book review

By Emma Brooks

I read We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver and absolutely loved it. The book was gripping yet revolting, you couldn’t help but feel disgusted and yet you wanted to know more. You felt empathy for the odd characters and yet couldn’t help wonder whether you really should be feeling sorry for them. Considering how great her novel was, I figured that others of hers would be just as gripping. However, I was unfortunately wrong.

So much for that

The book revolves around two main sets of characters: two couples who are friends. On the one hand, we have Shepherd and Glynis. Shepherd is a self-made handyman, who once owned his own business and has done pretty well in life. He is therefore quite well off financially, and has nothing to complain about. He harbours a somewhat crazy idea of “the afterlife”, a time when he will call everything quits and suddenly move away to live on a remote island in the middle of nowhere and enjoy his years of retirement. Glynis, his wife, is a metalsmith though she doesn’t actually produce much work. Considering that her husband is so well off, she doesn’t have a full time job and mostly spends her time at home.

On the other hand, we have Carol and Jackson. Jackson is Shepherd’s best friend, they work together and have known each other for years. Jackson is an uneducated man, but he tries to make up for it by teaching himself what he needs to know, and is constantly trying to impress with his general knowledge. Carol works a boring job in order to be able to foot the medical bills for their eldest daughter, who is ill with an incredibly rare genetic disease and who is not going to see much further than her 20th birthday at best.

The whole book is utterly depressing. Not only do we have Carol and Jackson’s daughter Flicka who has a terminal and rather horrible illness, but Glynis, Shepherd’s wife is also diagnosed very early on with a rare form of cancer. The whole book follows her battle against cancer, and describes in the minutest detail everything she has to go through. The bodily changes, the loss of weight, the loss of hair… The chemo, the medication, the treatments at the hospital, the injections and many more things that Glynis has to endure. The entire focus of the book is on Glynis’ cancer, and how people around her react to her having been diagnosed with the deadly illness. As readers, we are therefore doomed to watch Glynis die.

Not only that,  but if you are not feeling depressed the book leaves you feeling angry. You are angry because of the way Shepherd is such a nice guy and gets bossed around by everybody. It is quite plain that everyone around him is using him and yet he lets them do so. You are angry because Shepherd’s sister is a selfish woman who can’t even put someone with cancer’s life before her own. You are angry because Jackson is angry. Jackson spends most of his life ranting about everything that is wrong with society. The millions of ways that people are being abused by the system, the millions of ways in which the government fails to provide any decent living for its citizens, etc etc.

There is hardly one moment in the book that is happy, lighthearted or where you are not either thinking about death or feeling angry about something. Not only that, but both couples’ lives as couples are fraught. They don’t get on, there is a recurrent theme of the husbands feeling they don’t deserve their wives. There are also some awkward sex scenes you rather wish the author had missed out…

Only towards the last few pages of the book does the tone lighten up and do you finally feel like something good is happening. The book says on its cover “Required reading for all mortals” (by the Daily Mail) but I beg to differ. Only if you are curious about what I have written, or curious about what it’s like to have cancer would I suggest reading this book. If not, it is sadly not as appealing as it may seem.

Although cancer is a disease that many people face in life, I don’t see the point in writing a whole novel about it. Of course, it is a sad and difficult moment to endure, but I’m sure that for people who have gone through it they don’t need a novel, and for others there is no need to be depressed ahead of time. It would have made more sense if the book had had some underlying moral to it, but even that it lacks.

Unfortunately, Lionel Shriver’s best book so far was We Need to Talk about Kevin. It is so compelling and so well written, that her other books pale in comparison.

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