One-Minute Book Reviews

November 29, 2010

What Does ‘Getting Away From It All’ Mean in an Age of Anxiety? Quote of the Day From Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That’

Filed under: Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:55 pm
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Few people plan for retirement as ambitiously as does Shepherd Knacker, the protagonist of Lionel Shriver’s novel So Much for That. For years he has saved for what he calls his “Afterlife” in a spot far removed, geographically and emotionally, from where he built a profitable home repair business and raised two children with his wife, Glynis.

In this passage, he explains what he wants to flee:

“What would I like to get away from? Complexity. Anxiety. A feeling I’ve had my whole life that at any given time there’s something I’m forgetting, some detail or chore, something I’m supposed to be doing or should have already done. That nagging sensation – I get up with it, I go through the day with it, I go to sleep with it. When I was a kid, I had a habit of coming home from school on Friday afternoons and immediately doing my homework. So I’d wake up on Saturday morning with this wonderful sensation, a clean, open feeling of relief and possibility and calm. There’d be nothing I had to do. Those Saturday mornings, they were a taste of real freedom that I’ve hardly ever experienced as an adult. I never wake up in Elmsford with the feeling that I’ve done my homework.”

November 26, 2010

Lionel Shriver’s National Book Award Finalist, ‘So Much for That,’ a Novel About America’s Misplaced Faith in Its Health-Care System

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:57 am
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Shep Knacker’s surname is British slang for testicle, but will he have the balls to resist financially ruinous U.S. medical practices?

So Much for That. By Lionel Shriver. HarperCollins, 436 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Knacker, the surname of the hero of So Much for That, is British slang for testicle. Lionel Shriver is an American who lives in London, so it’s safe to assume she knows this. It’s also safe to assume that a man named Shepherd Knacker has symbolic weight, or stands for more than what he is: a 48-year-old married father of two and a home repairman who has spent his adult life saving for an escapist retirement.

Whom does Shep represent? Try this: The good Shepherd does carpentry and anticipates redemption in what he calls an “Afterlife.” Still stumped? Shep has a wife named Glynis, which means “holy,” and a best friend named Jackson, a variation on John. He’s the son of a Gabriel Knacker, a Presbyterian minister, and has a psychological resurrection after persecution by his boss. His story involves significant fish, water and palm imagery.

Okay, we can see a few religious parallels here. But Shep isn’t a Jesus figure in the usual sense, a charismatic leader whom others worship. He’s far too low-keyed and accommodating. Nor is this book about Christianity. Quite the opposite: It’s a novel about an America in which people entrust their lives not to Jesus but to a broken health care system that betrays even those who can afford to use it.

For years Shep has been a good and faithful servant of mammon, a man who built a home-repair business that he sold for a million dollars. He planned to use to the cash to underwrite his retirement on a palmy island off the coast of Africa. But his wife learns that she has mesothelioma on the day he announces that, with or without her, he’s leaving his job and country to begin his Afterlife on Pemba. Suddenly Shep can’t leave his company or country because Glynis needs his medical insurance, and if he doubts it, he needs only to look at his friend Jackson’s daughter, who has a ravaging degenerative disease.

This jury-rigged opening is the first of several plot contrivances that are less believable than the withering assault on U.S. health care delivered by So Much for That. After years of writing for the Economist and the Guardian, Shriver may be America’s best reporter-novelist now that Tom Wolfe has entered his lifetime-achievement-award years. She’s unafraid of research. This has allowed her to gather the details needed to skewer plausibly a raft of medical indignities: the dubious procedures such as penis-enlargement surgery, the so-called “Medicare spend-down” that requires the elderly to use up their assets before the government will pay for a nursing home, the gung-ho doctors who bombard the dying with unproven treatments that won’t save them and at best will prolong their lives briefly and torturously.

Shep has a natural wariness of the physicians’ impulses toward overkill and feels like “a religious skeptic” when Glynis’s internist refers her to Philip Goldman, a world-class, out-of-network expert on her rare peritoneal mesothelioma. But Shep tries to buy into the medical tent-revivalism when he sees how much it means to his wife: “Since the internist produced more tangible redemption than either Gabe Knacker’s traditional Presbyterianism or [his sister-in-law] Deb’s barmy born-again sect in Tucson, it was time to convert. To become a loyal, tithing parishoner of Philip Goldman’s church.”

For all his doubts, Shep looks like a saint next to the friends and relatives who, in their ignorance or egocentrism, add to his wife’s pain. Glynis is in the hospital after debulking surgery when her born-again sister Deb tries to convert her with a condescending variation on Pascal’s wager: “Like, if a lottery is free, why not grab a ticket? All your teachers said you were so smart.” Glynis resists, and Deb blunders on by telling her sister that at least her asbestos-related cancer made her thin. “Yeah, right,” Glynis says. “The Mesothelioma Diet. The book’s not out yet, but you could still get a head start by chewing on some old insulation.”

Much of this is heavy-handed, an inelegant cross between a protest novel and domestic fiction about a family tested by illness. So Much for That is issue-driven, and some of its characters emerge as vehicles for ideas, or embodiments of arguments made by Susan Sontag and Barbara Ehrenreich about the language of cancer, more than as credible people. Shriver tends to spell her messages in neon: Her book has three medical subplots when two might have made her point.

But Shriver has a moral fearlessness rare among novelists. Health care is one of the three great issues in America today, along with war and the economy, and she wrestles with it perhaps more ambitiously than any fiction writer of her generation. And if she is a polemicist, she can deliver subtle blows. Consider the surname of one of Glynis’s doctors: Knox. In context the name appears to nod to the fiery – and, some say, pernicious – founder of the Scottish Presbyterianism. It also suggests Fort Knox, the U.S. gold Bullion Depository. With one word, Shriver suggests the essence of her novel: a tale of the intersection of money and a misguided belief in the godlike abilities of doctors.

So Much for That isn’t a plea for people to trust in Jesus instead of health-care providers. Shriver has said that she deplores all religions, and nothing in her book suggests otherwise. In this novel she tells us that you are saved neither by God nor by doctors who play Him. You are saved by reason, or pursuing your own vision of a good life. In America, money helps. But you can choose to live elsewhere. Will Shep have the balls to make that choice? Suffice to say that if he often disagrees with his wife, he has something of the spirit she shows when she complains that nobody ever put on a gravestone: “Here Lies, etc., She Swiffered the Kitchen Floor.”

Best line: Glynis rages against the saccharine, kid-glove treatment she gets from family and friends after she develops cancer: “I feel as if I’m trapped in a Top Forty by the Carpenters.”

Worst line: “‘Ipso facto!’ Shep chuckled.”

Editor: Gail Winston

Published: March 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to So Much for That appeared on this site on Nov. 26, 2010, in the post just before this one.

Furthermore: So Much for That was shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction. You may also want to read the comments Mark Athitakis made about the novel on his American Fiction Notes blog on Jan. 11, 2010, and on March 14, 2010.

About the author: Shriver wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange Prize, and other books.

Janice Harayda was the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That,’ a 2010 National Book Award Finalist

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:54 am
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

This guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies to use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups should link to the guide or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Shepherd Knacker hardly resembles a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. He’s a 48-year-old married father of two who lives in Westchester County, New York, and suffers the daily humiliations inflicted by the new head of the home-repair company he once owned. But for years Shep has been saving money for what he calls an “Afterlife” of subsistence living on an island off the coast of Africa. Just when he has enough cash, his wife develops a rare asbestos-related cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma. Suddenly Shep can’t leave the country or his company because Glynis needs his health insurance. How will the withering physical, emotional and financial cost of his wife’s treatments affect his marriage? Can his dream survive it? And if so, will it be worth it? Lionel Shriver, an American who lives in London, explores these questions and other in So Much for That, a novel shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction.

Discussion Questions:

1. Many Americans dream of escaping to the tropics but see the idea as unrealistic. Did Shriver convince you that Shep’s fantasies were plausible for him? How?

2. Glynis tells Shep, when he says he wants to leave the country, “You don’t know what you want out of, much less what you want in on.” Shep says he does know: “I want to buy myself.” [Page 18] Who was right? What did Shep mean when he said that he wanted to “buy” himself?

3. More than half of the chapters in So Much for That begin with a statement of the value of a bank account or investment portfolio. What purpose does this literary device serve? Does Shep strike you as mercenary? If he isn’t greedy, why might Shriver have included financial the statements?

4. In addition to its main plot about Shep’s Afterlife, this novel has three medical subplots: about Glynis’s cancer, Jackson’s botched penis-enlargement surgery, and the degenerative disease familial dysautonomia, which afflicts the daughter of Jackson and his wife, Carol. Did the novel need all three subplots? If not, which could have been cut? What would the novel have lost or gained by eliminating it?

5. The story Shriver tells has parallels with the life of Christ. For example, Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd, and he was a carpenter whom Christians believe will lead them to eternal life. So Much for That is about a good Shepherd who does carpentry and hopes to lead his family to an Afterlife with him. You can read these parallels as a commentary on an America in which people have faith not in Jesus but in a broken health-care system. How would you interpret the similarities? A fuller discussion of the religious parallels appears in a review posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 26, 2010.

6. So Much for That deals with timely issues. “But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant,” Mark Athitakis writes in his American Fiction Notes blog. Will this novel appeal to Americans in 10 or 20 years? Why or why not?

7. Late in the novel Carol asks Shep, “Do you by any chance have a really, really big dick?” [Page 433] Shep reflects that he would “understand the context” of her remark the next day. What was the context? Did Carol ask that question because she hoped to sleep with him or for another reason?

8. Leah Hager Cohen wrote in a review in the New York Times Book Review that So Much for That has merits but lacks “a fullness of wisdom about its characters’ potential for growth.” What did she mean? Do you agree?

9. Glynis rails against the saccharine, kid-glove treatment she gets from people after she gets mesothelioma: “I feel as if I’m trapped in a Top Forty by the Carpenters.” [Page 310] Barbara Ehrenreich raised similar objections to the good cheer expected of cancer patients in her bestselling Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan, 2009). Did either book affect your views of how Americans treat cancer patients? If you’ve read both, which made its case better?

10. On the basis of this novel, you might expect Shriver to favor almost any kind of health care reform. But in an interview she faulted President Obama’s health care plan as well-intentioned but unlikely to help. Does her view surprise you now that you’ve read So Much for That?

Vital statistics:

So Much for That. By Lionel Shriver. HarperCollins, 436 pp., $25.99. Published: March 2010

A review of So Much for That appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on November, 26, 2010, in the post directly after this one.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please follow Jan on her Twitter feed at, where she lists new guides and reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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