This is the third Lionel Shriver novel I’ve read. Earlier this year I read Big Brother and I had also read We Need To Talk About Kevin several years ago. I did enjoy Big Brother – and I actually liked the twist at the end which I think divided some people – but I did find that it could be very wordy at times. And at over 500 pages I wondered if this novel would be the same…
The novel’s main character is Shep, who has a lot of money in the bank thanks to selling the business he set up. However, eight years later he works as an employee at the same company under a boss he hates. So he’s decided to finally do what he has dreamed of for years and pack it all in and move overseas. So he’s bought three one-way tickets to Pemba, an island in Tanzania, and is poised to spring the news on his wife and son in the hope they accompany him. But his wife Glynis has a bombshell of his own – she has a terminal illness.
Almost immediately the theme of the book becomes the illness and how Shep is going to have to pay for it out of his savings. There are very specific details of the different insurance policies in the US and how the system works – or doesn’t. To add even more detail to this theme we meet Shep’s best friend Jackson and his wife Carol, who have a severely disabled daughter.
Despite the grim subject matter of the book, it still manages to be humorous and to begin with I enjoyed Jackson’s lengthy rants about everything that is wrong with the world and how everyone is either a Mug (by paying into the system and getting nothing back) or a Mooch (not paying anything in but getting a lot out). I also found it interesting that the characters aren’t very nice – Glynis is actually quite unpleasant and isn’t a typical victim. And Shep’s sister Beryl is one of the most irritating and unlikeable characters I’ve ever seen put to paper!
However … I did feel my interest begin to wain about halfway through – the book became repetitive and Jackson’s rants, which I had quite enjoyed to begin with, became tedious as did the details of the financial implications of the various illnesses in the book. Because Shriver throws two more medical issues into the mix, one involving plastic surgery gone wrong, and another concerning an elderly relative. The fact that all these issues affect the same two couples just stretched this a bit far – and I really could have done without the plastic surgery subplot which was pretty unpleasant and didn’t really do anything for me.
There were large sections of this book when I really struggled – but then there would be a gripping conversation between characters and I was straight back into it again. For example there was one brilliant section towards the end where Shep had a very frank conversation with a doctor, that really brings home the situation he finds himself in, and raised a lot of issues. This section gives serious food for thought and will stay with me. It’s a shame that for me the book often got bogged down in a lot of repetitive observations and became rambling at points, so these really pertinent sections almost got drowned amongst the other bits.
The ending was unexpected and I don’t want to give anything away here, but it actually redeemed the book for me. But as with Big Brother I can imagine a lot of people might not like the ending.
Overall I did quite enjoy this book but I do wish it had been about 100-150 pages shorter and it had rambled on less at times. The story itself was interesting and the characters were all brilliantly drawn, if not particularly likeable. There is no doubt Shriver has a real skill for writing about people and making them real, flaws and all – but for me I would have liked this book to get to the point quicker at times.