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‘The Standing Chandelier: A Novella’ by Lionel Shriver ****

‘From the award-winning novelist and short story writer, Lionel Shriver, comes a literary gem, a story about love and the power of a gift. When Weston Babansky receives an extravagant engagement present from his best friend (and old flame) Jillian Frisk, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it – or how to get it past his fiancee. Especially as it’s a massive, handmade, intensely personal sculpture that they’d have to live with forever. As the argument rages about whether Jillian’s gift was an act of pure platonic generosity or something more insidious, battle lines are drawn… Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends? Described by the Sunday Times as ‘a brilliant writer’ with ‘a strong, clear and strangely seductive voice’, Lionel Shriver has written a glittering examination of friendship, ownership and the conditions of love.’

36454237I really enjoy Shriver’s writing, and whilst I’ve not even got through more than one of her novels to date, I wanted to see how she would craft a shorter work stylistically. The main nub of The Standing Chandelier – can a man and woman be ‘just friends’? – sounded rather twee and overdone, and is something I would ordinarily avoid. I was more than intrigued by the way in which Shriver might handle it, however, and was pleasantly impressed. She manages to avoid an awful lot of cliched tropes, and creates an exploration which is more unusual than usual.

The prose throughout the novella is intelligent and taut, as I was expecting, and I was pulled in straight away. Shriver still involves a lot of depth when crafting her characters, and both Weston and Jillian come across as fully-formed and believable individuals. Darkly funny at times, the story carries one through from beginning to end at a perfectly adjusted pace. Rather than lose herself in the constrained form, or having to drop more interesting elements of storyline in order to obey the conventions of the novella, The Standing Chandelier is rather perfect in terms of its size. Yes, it can be read in a couple of hours, but it still feels rich, and has a lot of emotional depth to it.

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‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver ****

“Shep Knacker has long saved for “the Afterlife,” an idyllic retreat in the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Exasperated that his wife, Glynis, has concocted endless excuses why it’s never the right time to go, Shep finally announces he’s leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her. Yet Glynis has some news of her own: she’s deathly ill. Shep numbly puts his dream aside, while his nest egg is steadily devastated by staggering bills that their health insurance only partially covers. Astonishingly, illness not only strains their marriage but saves it.  From acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Lionel Shriver comes a searing, ruthlessly honest novel. Brimming with unexpected tenderness and dry humor, it presses the question: How much is one life worth?”

9780061458590There is much divided opinion about Shriver’s So Much for That.  As in her most well-known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, the book’s prose is highly stylised, and one can spot her distinctive writing from the outset.  Within So Much for That, Shriver demonstrates just how versatile she is as an author; this effort is markedly different to the aforementioned, but it is just as compelling throughout.

Many issues of importance are tackled here, but the one which rises above everything else is the healthcare system in the United States.  It gives a fascinating insight into insurance policies and how much things actually cost, which I in the United Kingdom have been sheltered from with our fantastic NHS.

Intelligently written and realistically characterised, So Much for That is sharp, exquisite, and mindblowingly good.  It held my interest throughout, until I reached the last dozen or so pages.  They served to ruin the whole for me somewhat; I did not feel as though the epilogue which Shriver presents is necessary.  In fact, it was reminiscent of that awful ‘grown-up’ scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which still infuriates me.  Ugh.  I have consequently come away from the whole feeling a touch disappointed, but know that I will definitely have to read all of Shriver’s other books in future; she has such a talent, and I am determined to give one of her books a five-star rating.

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