So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

I prefer Zanzibar

Spoiler alert
This novel is about Shep, who dreams of getting away from it all, of cutting his losses from a life of

work and wealth acquisition to spend what he calls “the afterlife” in a suitably exotic location. He has spent many years trying to convince his wife, Glynis, to have the same dream, but without success so far. Very early on in the book, Shep decides that it’s finally time to live his dream, he’s going to Pemba, with or without Glynis.  At this point, she announces that she has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and the central theme of the book becomes apparent: the cost of medical care. The novel is set in the USA, the protagonists are wealthy people.

(Spoilers coming thick and fast now:)
Clinical procedures and treatments are followed to buy Glynis time and rapidly deplete the family’s resources. To make matters worse, Shep loses his job, and therefore medical insurance for his family, and there are still many other calls on his purse: looking after Gabriel, his aging father, supporting an impossibly bitchy sister, providing for his and Glynis’s two children.
The other characters in the novel are Shep’s friends: nice Carol married to angry Jackson, with their two daughters, Heather and Flicka, the latter a very smart cookie and heavily disabled. There is also a suitably evil boss. The hero Shep is an improbably all-round nice guy, taking care of everybody beyond the call of duty, saintly in his ministrations to his sick wife and a handy man (every woman’s dream, surely, forget the six-pack) with a penchant for artistic tinkering (he creates wacky fountains).
And this is a note to the person who lent me this book: Sharon, when I said I wanted to retire to Zanzibar (Zanzibar is the island next to Pemba* and yes, I do go on about it a bit), I wasn’t thinking particularly of dying there! Anyway, when Glynis is close to death, Shep decides to move her to Pemba, together with his father, his son (the daughter who is no longer in education stays in the US), Carol and her two daughters (mad at the world Jackson having in the meantime shot himself). They get there. All the sick and aged die in rapid succession: Glynis, Gabriel and Flicka, and the survivors stay on Pemba, blissfully happy.
Spices (including cloves top right) from Zanzibar – Photo: Richard Wilkinson
I enjoyed parts of this book: Jackson’s rants are fun to read and references to bao and cloves brought happy memories back. A review said that “British readers will close this excellent novel feeling grateful for the NHS”. Indeed, but France is ranked first for “overall health system performance” in 191 countries in the WHO’s latest report (2000) on the topic. OK, it does mean our social contributions are a leeetle bit on the high side.
* That is not quite correct. In fact the archipelago of Zanzibar, which together with former Tanganyka constitutes the Republic of Tanzania, comprises two main islands, Pemba and Unguja, the latter being commonly referred to as Zanzibar. I have been to Unguja/Zanzibar twice and to Pemba once. Both islands have amazing beaches. Pemba is much more rural than Zanzibar and has no Stone Town, which is a magical place in my view. Pemba is also apparently the place where the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam by Al Qaida was plotted.

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