Lionel Shriver comes across as opinionated, abrasive, self-congratulatory and robust – not exactly the subtlest of writers. I don’t think she’s ever been a stylist; the kind of novelist, like Margaret Atwood, say, who was once and still is a poet at heart. She doesn’t edit ruthlessly; her phrasing is blunt; her expositions can hit the jugular, but are also often pompous and overworked to death. Her humour, too – I wouldn’t say it is the most understated, or, to me, the funniest. But I’m probably just being very British, which is how she makes me feel. She doesn’t care. She loves her work, and herself, and is clearly happiest ruffling feathers. She can certainly tell a challenging story. The last thing she needs is to be thought of as “nice.”
I’ve just finished reading So Much For That and done my usual thing after an absorbing read; gone straight to the published reviews to check what other people thought. They all deal with the health-care question, naturally; for this is a book about illness and dying in America. It’s also a book about money. This being another topic nice people are often reluctant to address, I liked that about it too.
Almost incidentally, though, it touches on something none of the reviewers address, so I will, since it’s a been a recurring absorption of mine: The difference in the cost of living between rich and poor countries, and what this does for those of us lucky enough to be born in the rich ones. Basically, any Western muggins can take their modest savings, go somewhere with much better weather and live there like royalty, at least for a while.
I’ve tended to regard westerners who do this with disdain. I did it myself in a modest way, and expended quite a lot of mental energy attempting to self-justify my presence in banana-grove and coconut-palm land. Certainly, not-so-elderly expats enjoying their little fiefdoms (with all the trappings, such as a thoroughly affordable and dutifully grateful servant class) in quasi-fascist outposts like Dubai don’t exactly inspire admiration; any more than the insular expat Brits on the Costas.
But here, Shriver isn’t concerned about the rights and wrongs of first-world micro-exploitation of third world rural economies. She doesn’t strike me as particularly interested in the third world itself, despite being well-travelled. Perhaps she’s like Eva, the publisher better known as the monster’s mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin; an occasional travel-writer, not an anthropologist with a knack for fiction. That’s OK, not every writer has to be. Shriver’s best characters will probably always be American. What she serves up here is a good man’s commendable desire to make the most of his core American virtues. Shep, her protagonist, by the end of the book deserves his taste of paradise abroad if anyone does. He is clearly the unpretentious sort of Westerner his chosen paradise can best accommodate, and it did not grate even with me to see him finally getting it.
Here’s an article, a version of which I must have seen on and off down the years. When women travel alone, as backpackers or, I assume, on business, if they can’t bear eating in public alone, they’ll end up not eating. When I was in Central America, a backpacker on a budget, but managing to earn a bit as I went, I necessarily used restaurants and bars at least once a day. I can’t claim being alone was not an issue; I was aware that it was, but I got so used it, it seemed relatively trivial. Certainly I never considered not eating through shame of being a woman alone, though there must have been occasions – I was often way off the beaten track – when I could find nowhere suitable. As a general rule, I preferred eating out at lunchtime rather than evenings. I preferred hotels with restaurants attached. Out and about, I picked my locations carefully, and once in a place, chose an inconspicuous table with a good overview. I always had something – anything – with me to read, or to hide behind. There were some waiters in some restaurants reluctant, or perhaps embarrassed, to serve me, and on one occasion – in rural Mexico – a pair of mariachis would not leave me alone, but I can’t recall any seriously unpleasant hassle. Nor did I ever go hungry. On the contrary; I have an abiding memory of simple, ample, delicious native grub.