Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for So Much For That
Shep Knacker wants to “get away from it all.” It is early 2005, and he has been planning “The Afterlife,” as he calls it, for years, vacationing annually with his wife, Glynis, in a different foreign land about which he meticulously journaled salient information pertaining to living conditions there. Shep has a little over three-quarters of a million dollars in the bank — the remaining proceeds from the sale of the handyman business he founded, Knack of All Trades, for the price of one million dollars. The purchaser was one of his former employees, Randy Pogatchnik, who immediately renamed the business “Handy Randy.” Thanks to the internet and clever, but annoying marketing techniques — such as the jingle set to the tune of “Candy Man,” featuring the new lyrics, “the handyman can” — the business is now worth several times the sales price. That doesn’t trouble Shep, who stayed on as an employee, fielding customer complaints and referring to the obnoxious and officious Randy as “Mr. Pogatchnik.”
Shep still works alongside his best friend, Jackson, who rails about politics, government, taxes, health care, and every other conceivable topic, always threatening to write a book with an impossibly and ridiculously long title. Jackson and his wife, Carol, have two daughters. Flicka, a high school sophomore, was born with an extremely rare degenerative condition known as Riley-Day syndrome (familial dysautonomia or FD), the cost of whose care forced Carol back to work in order to secure health coverage. At eleven, Heather is already becoming obese and consuming placebos designed to alleviate her need for attention and feelings of being left out due to her sister’s ongoing medical crises.
Shep figures that he has enough money to live comfortably for years in Pemba, off the coast of Zanzibar in eastern Africa, where residents spend an average of two dollars per day on living expenses. He has purchased three one-way tickets — for himself, Glynis, and their teen-aged son, Zachary — and packed his bag. In recent years, he has watched Glynis become increasingly cynical about The Afterlife. When they met, Glynis was a young artist who formed jewelry from various metals. But she has not produced any new work in years, and rarely even goes into her studio. Rather, she works part time for a chocolatier, creating molds of rabbits.
As the story opens, Shep tells Glynis that in a few days, he is leaving for Pemba and his new life there — with or without her. But Glynis has news of her own. Calmly, she informs Shep that “Randy is for once entirely handy, and I’m afraid I will need your health insurance.”
Shep, the son of a Presbyterian minister, always does the right thing. So, of course, upon learning that Glynis has been diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, an extremely rare and nearly always fatal form of cancer, he unpacks his suitcase, knowing that he will stay with Glynis to care and provide for her. After researching the disease, rates of survival, typical progression, etc., Shep sits before his computer and weeps. Then he is propelled into action, researching the parameters of his health care coverage, as well. He soon realizes that Jackson was correct when he warned him that their health insurance plan will pay for only a fraction of the treatment Glynis will need. The expert physicians with whom she needs to consult are not part of the insurer’s network. Copayments for necessary tests and procedures are substantial. Fortunately, Shep has the resources to pay for the care Glynis so desperately needs. Surely, the money left from the sale of the business will be enough . . . and still leave plenty for The Afterlife when Glynis has recovered or . . . not.
Opposites attract, Shep and Glynis being no exception. As saintly and upstanding as Shep is, Glynis is disagreeable and cynical, bitter about her fate and determined to make those around her as miserable as she is. She has few real friends and limited patience with Shep’s passive need to be everyone’s go-to guy. A perfectionist, she has not produced any new art in years because she is dissatisfied with her own imperfections and unable to accept even the most constructive criticism graciously. Glynis does not accept her diagnosis, either, and seeks to place blame and extract retribution for her dire circumstances. She wants to file suit, but Shep doubts that the legal theory upon which she wants to proceed is viable.
Along with Glynis, Shep also has responsibility for his aging father, and his sister, Beryl, a would-be film documentary producer who has never stood on her own financially and demands that Shep provide for her. When she loses the protection of rent control and must move from her Manhattan apartment, she expects that he will provide her with a suitable new home, even scheming to have Shep pay the more than $8,000 per month cost of placing their father in a skilled nursing facility so that she can acquire the family home in Berlin, New Hampshire. She even expects Shep to pay the utility bills. And Shep, for the sake of keeping peace in the family and ensuring that everyone is taken care of, accedes, even as he subsidizes the rent and other costs of daughter Amelia living on her own.
Meanwhile, Jackson and Carol are struggling to care for Flicka, whose medical needs forced Carol back into the work force in order to secure health care coverage. Jackson, a fascinating character who loves his wife dearly, but has never felt that he deserved her, struggles with his own perceived shortcomings, embarking upon a disastrous course of action that ultimately proves tragic.
Flicka, refusing to be a cheerful, inspirational poster child for her disability is deliciously sarcastic and fatalistic. She argues with her parents about their insistence that she continue her studies. After all, she points out, the average life expectancy of people with FD is about twenty, so what are the odds that she is ever going to put to use the mathematics homework she detests? Besides, her teachers will give her passing grades whether she turns in the homework or not, she observes, as she wads up her homework paper and flings it toward the trash can. Valid considerations, Jackson must admit. Flicka does not believe that her life is really worth living in her condition and makes no secret of the fact that she will welcome death when it overtakes her. But does she really have a cogent understanding of what she is facing?
And how much is the life of a fifty-one-year-old woman worth? As Glynis faces new chemotherapy cocktails, Shep finds himself guiltily asking that question, as he wonders if he will ever actually make it to The Afterlife, with or without his wife. Shep never really understood the depth of his love for Glynis until her diagnosis, nor did he appreciate what it means to show the breadth and unconditional nature of that love until he finds himself attending to her every physical need, as well as his father’s. Shep’s realizations free him from his obligations and allow him to clearly see what matters most.
Shriver’s narration is rich, eloquent, and searing. She does not shy away from some of the most difficult questions human beings will ever have to ponder, especially those concerning end-of-life decision-making (the characters discuss Terri Schindler-Schiavo’s battle to live, for instance) and what constitutes a quality of life that is acceptable to the individual dealing with a disability or terminal illness. She asks her readers to think about when it is time to cease treatment and what a truly good death might be like. And she presciently examines America’s health care crisis, even though when she conceived and wrote the book back in 2005, she had no idea, of course, that President Obama would be elected or health care reform would actually become a reality.
The language is sometimes rough, and some of the plot twists are described in graphic and disturbing detail. But Shriver’s writing, brutal as it may be, is also refreshingly honest, emotionally raw and, subsequently, draining, and always thought-provoking. Her characters are fully formed, their thoughts and feelings revealed through almost lyrical prose.
Ultimately, although much of the journey upon which Shep, Glynis, and the other characters embark is distressingly dark and seemingly hopeless, the message of So Much For That is upbeat. Through Shep’s sacrifice, Shriver demonstrates that life is a gift that should be savored and appreciated, and the most important thing we can give those we love is not money or other things but, rather, our time and attention.
So Much For That is an unforgettable story that would be perfect for book clubs because of the many discussion points raised by the issues Shriver addresses and the characters’ reactions to their circumstances. I highly recommend So Much For That!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of So Much For That free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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The comment posted by Mary Ward was selected at random and a copy of So Much for That is on its way to Mary!