Showing 1 - 2 of 2 annotations associated with Shriver, Lionel
- Teagarden, J. Russell
Summary:Cyril Wilkinson and his wife Kay make a pact. On Kay’s eightieth birthday, when Cyril is already eighty-one, they will commit suicide together. Cyril, a physician in the British National Health Service (NHS) secured a supply of secobarbital as the means to their end. It was 1991. They have planned well ahead; another twenty-nine years will pass before Kay’s eightieth in 2020.
Motivating the pact was the death of Kay’s father after “a good four years of steady deterioration, followed by a solid ten of nothing but degradation” from dementia (p. 7). They had just arrived home from his funeral service, and were reflecting on what they had been through. At one point, Cyril says, “Your father frankly made me suicidal—or homicidal—or both. Half an hour in his presence passed like a mini ice age,” and then promises Kay, “I will do almost anything to keep the two of us from acceding to such a fate” (p. 12). But Kay is dubious.
That’s what everyone says...Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them...Somehow they’ll do something so their aging will proceed with dignity...Everyone thinks they have too much self-respect to allow a stranger to wash their private parts...Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out their miserable end of their lives like everyone else. (pp. 12-13)And so Kay dithers over the next few months whether to agree to the pact, but once her mother begins showing signs of dementia; “I’m all in,” she tells Cyril (p. 17).
Cyril and Kay proceed through the subsequent twenty-nine years, with Kay raising their three children, retiring, finding new work and passions; Cyril going on and on about politics, the NHS, old people; and both watching their remaining parents pass on, traveling to far-flung locations, becoming grandparents, aging. Then the day arrives; happy birthday, Kay?
The novel structure is simple or complex depending on how a reader approaches it. The first chapter sets up the pact. The second chapter leads up to the day of reckoning and becomes the first story telling what became of the Wilkinsons’ plan. The next eleven chapters envision alternative scenarios unfolding from choices Cyril and Kay make before and on their pre-determined end date. Some scenarios stem from one or both of them not going through with their pact. Some scenarios involve recognizable and available options today, and some are wholly futuristic and unattainable. Some scenarios are happy, some are sad, all are unsettling. These chapters can read as independent stories offering different choices and endings. But they can also be read as interdependent and collectively building toward a point of view on the question: Should we stay or should we go?
The interdependence and complexity of the chapters arise from the through lines among them. From the third chapter on, for example, the first few sentences of each chapter are taken verbatim or slightly modified from some part of a preceding chapter. Other blocks of text appear in one or more chapters. One through line even extends beyond the book to another of Shriver’s novels (So Much For That). Kay and Cyril exhibit the same personalities and preferences, and express the same general hopes and desires through all the chapters. Other through lines are shared events or recurring arguments and debates; however, not always with the same outcomes.
The four years preceding Kay’s eightieth birthday overlap both the decision of the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) and the Coivd-19 pandemic. Thus, during the time Cyril and Kay are deciding whether they will actually leave or remain on Earth, the UK is deciding whether to leave or remain in the European Union, and while Cyril and Kay are seemingly willing to die rather than fight the ravages of old age, millions of people are willing to fight the ravages of Covid-19 rather than die. These juxtapositions pop up often giving the Wilkinsons’ decision added poignancy.
- Teagarden, J. Russell
Summary:The book opens with Shep Knacker packing his bags for his long-dreamed of “Afterlife”—his word for retirement—in Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania. He plans to take his wife, Glynis, and his high school aged son, Zach. This plan is not unexpected because Shep and Glynis have made many “research” trips during their 26-year marriage to find the right place (though never to Pemba). But, there were always reasons not to act on their research. An intervention was needed. Glynis is not home while he is packing because she is at some “appointment.” When she gets home, Shep informs her of his plans for the three of them to leave for Pemba, and he further informs Glynis that he’s going whether she comes or not. In response, she informs him that she has cancer—a bad one (mesothelioma); he unpacks, so much for that.
What unfurls from there is more complicated than just the challenges Glynis’s disease produces, though these are monumental challenges. Other people, too, are in need of Shep’s attention. His father’s decrepitude is advancing, his sister is on the brink of homelessness, and his teenage son is detaching from him and life in general. Shep eventually loses his job as an employee at the handyman company he once owned (“Knack of All Trades”) then sold to fund his Afterlife. There’s more.
Shep's best friend, Jackson, who also worked with him at Knack of All Trades has two girls, and one of them has familial dysautonomia. This progressive genetic disease of the nervous system produces a constellation of medical problems that are bizarre, intense, and serious, before it ultimately produces a tragic end. The trauma and tragedy this disease inflicts in this story (and in life) encompass the entire family, in spite of the heroic efforts of Jackson’s wife, Carol.
The many plot lines in this novel at times proceed independently of one another, and at other times intersect. They concern serious illness experiences and the effects they have on families and also how the American health care system can place burdens on those who need it. Nevertheless, the two families, beaten down by illness, fatigued from encounters with doctors and hospitals, and exasperated from fights with insurance companies, rally enough to make it to Pemba. The trip becomes financially affordable as the result of some narrative gimmickry involving a financial settlement of $800,000 from the company that put asbestos in equipment Glynis had used years before. They would spend the rest of their lives there, longer for some than for others.