This novel attracted my attention as it is written by Lionel Schriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005 and which has sold over one million copies in twenty-five languages. Lionel Schriver wrote seven novels before Kevin, which she called her ‘make or break’ creation after seven years of professional disappointment and ‘virtual obscurity’. Six of her seven novels were published; one failed to find a publisher. Since Kevin, Ms Schriver has written five novels, including So Much for That, which was published in 2010. She is an inspiration to all of us novelists who feel that our creations have not received the deserved recognition.
So Much for That’s principal character, Shep Knacker, is an entrepreneurial handyman, who is both skilled and likeable. He is able to sell his New York City-based business for one million dollars, and his plan is to move his wife Glynis, his son Zach, and his daughter Amelia to Pemba Island off the coast of Tanzania to live her rest of their lives in low-cost, stress-free comfort. Glynis, though she has been involved in numerous searches around the world to find the perfect place for their ‘Afterlife’, has doubts. Just as she is being confronted with a decision to go or to stay, she is diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. Escape to Pemba has to be postponed while Glynis undergoes months of treatment. The American healthcare system being what it is, Shep’s nest egg is gradually depleted by co-insurance payments and invoices for un-covered treatments. In order to keep the insurance he has, Shep must continue on the payroll of his prior company, under the unsympathetic supervision of the new owner. Glynis finds that the likely cause of her cancer is exposure to asbestos, with which she had contact in her metal-working hobby. She decides to sue the company which made the asbestos products. Just as Shep is on the verge of bankruptcy, Glynis wins her case and the money received covers an Afterlife in Pemba.
There are several other characters, including Shep’s friend, Jackson, who engages in diatribes against the Mooches (the freeloaders) and the systems that lets them take advantage of the Mugs. Jackson’s daughter, Flicka, who suffers from a horrible, terminal, childhood illness is a vehicle, along with Glynis, for debating the value of human life. There are doctors of doubtful honesty with their patients. And there are decisions about whether to be a Mooch or a Mug.
So Much for That is an entertaining story. It is human, sad, funny, heroic, and, and it is difficult to put down. I felt, at times, though, that the author was lecturing me about the dreadful state of healthcare in the US, and other assorted inequities in life. Several characters, including Flicka, and Shep’s sister, Beryl, are so polarised that one tends to lose what sympathy we should have for them. At the outset, I found it difficult to buy into Shep’s vision of the Afterlife; acceptance of his vision came when his troubles grew acute. Occasionally, I found the text somewhat oblique. For example: “It was disconcerting to be systematically punished for what might have engendered a modicum of gratitude.” Why not say: “He was annoyed to be punished for acts of kindness”? Sometimes, for me, the dialogue didn’t ring true, but perhaps I am being too picky.
I liked So Much for That. It makes some very important points about what is to be human: what’s good about our humanity and what’s not so good.