You Live, You Die … So Much For That

CoverIf someone said to you “here’s a book about dying of cancer, genetic disorders, the American Health System and some crumbling relationships” you might just say “thanks, but no thanks”. But if they added that the book  So Much For That was written by Lionel Shriver (whom it just so happens you have to interview), everything would change.

Shriver writes sentences that come at you like a train aiming at a standing car on a level crossing. There is no escape. Not one for feng shui sparseness, this is dense writing where Shriver plucks at will from her enormous vocabulary to render characters so annoyingly human your palms tingle to slap them.

Female readers will probably develop a crush on Shep (I know I did), male readers will never want to see the words “penis” and “enlargement” in the same sentence ever again and Glynis – the feisty, unreasonable Glynis (to borrow one of Polchatnik’s annoying tautologies)- just is who she is.

It is a measure of Shriver’s talent that you learn a whole lot about stuff you never wanted to know in the first place and yet you do not even once think of skipping a paragraph. There are wonderful insights throughout the book, one of my favourites is : “concept is incidental, execution is all”, which drove me to stop fantasising about where to put the spring bulbs and instead get up and actually plant them. Not only that, for the first time ever I read the little tag that tells you how deep in the ground they should go.

Be warned, this is not a book for the squeamish. Unlike other books on tending to dying friends or family,  for example  Elizabeth Berg’s  Never Change, Shriver does not spare us even the most private indignities of it all. I wonder how this compares with other books on the topic of death and illness, I hope there are some readers out there who can share their expertise. In the case of So Much For That, there’s no refined turning of the gaze from what is ugly, painful, profoundly sad and very, very costly. The book’s  title lays bare  the financial implications and the hopelessness of it all in what must be the best title choice I have seen in a long long time, all thanks to Shriver’s husband Jeff.

Essentially this is a novel about love and sacrifice and after the freefall of this anxious read, Shriver finally relents and shoves a mattress under us. It’s not quite in the “make mine  extra fluffy” league, but I was oh so grateful for it.

7 thoughts on “You Live, You Die … So Much For That

  1. Rebecca 7 May 2010 / 9:54 pm

    Roberta, I am really looking forward to reading your Festival reports.
    In the meantime, I think Anna Karenina is right up there for books about death and dying: it’s so sad when Levin’s brother dies.

    • Roberta Smith 9 May 2010 / 11:51 am

      Thanks for that recommendation Rebecca, there are a whole lot of books I will need to re-read sometime. Another good book on grieving is The Year of Miracle Thinking by Joan Didion.Hope you enjoy all the festival reports!

  2. onederccl 9 May 2010 / 1:59 pm

    I love the way you write, Roberta! I’m looking forward to the interview!

    • Roberta Smith 10 May 2010 / 8:42 am

      Oneder, that is such an encouraging thing to say and it has cheered me up enormously, because I am terrified of the interview – here’s hoping in an adrenalin inspiring way!

  3. elizabeth 10 May 2010 / 9:33 pm

    I loved your last paragraph in your review of Lionel Shriver’s new book, Roberta.

    Have a wonderful time in Auckland and enjoy yourself. How surprising that you haven’t ever been there.

  4. Allison 10 May 2010 / 9:58 pm

    Have to be honest: I’ve skipped over most of your review because I’m only 50 pages or so into the book. So I will save a proper read for later. Although I can see misery looming so far I’ve been struck by her lightness of touch, her acerbic humour and the way she can skewer a character with a single phrase.

    Can’t wait to hear your impressions of her!

  5. Roberta Smith 11 May 2010 / 11:00 am

    “Skewer a character” WOW, will have to use that somewhere – here’s hoping she doesn’t similarly skewer her interviewers!

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