Lionel Shriver believes in tough love. Instead of embracing her readers she prods, pinches, pokes and provokes them by exploring incendiary social issues through novels that use unlikable characters to reveal harsh truths.
Her 16 novels have illuminated and punctured a broad range of issues including the health care industry (“So Much for That,” 2001), school violence (“We Need To Talk About Kevin”, (2003), body image (“Big Brother,” 2013), and the global economy (“The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047,” 2016).
Her wonderfully titled latest novel, “Should We Stay or Should We Go,” takes on assisted suicide and euthanasia through the tricky, time-bending saga of two somewhat annoying British medical professionals, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson. After watching Kay’s father die a tortuous death from Alzheimer’s, the couple, still healthy and in their mid-50s, decide that they will commit suicide on her 80th birthday.
While the couple has planned their future, their creator has other ideas as Shriver raises the question: were they to cut life artificially short, what would they miss out on? She begins to answer by imagining a host of possibilities. As fellow Top Tenner Walter Kirn writes in his New York Times review:
Some of these parallel realities differ but slightly from the baseline, in the sense they are recognizable versions of the world the Wilkinsons set out in. In one of them, their callous, awful children commit them to a ghastly old-age facility, Close of Day Cottages, whose sadistic staff compels the couple, after 60 years of marriage, to sleep in separate rooms. They must also turn over their magazines and iPads and resign themselves to living without books — all part of a strict institutional ban on intellectually stimulating items, which the head matron deems “upsetting.” …
In subsequent timelines, the world is much less ordinary and is, in a couple of instances, transformed by medical and technological leaps. Biological death is abolished by a drug, provoking the Wilkinsons — and most everyone else — to spend eternity tweaking their identities, including their genders and sexual orientations, to keep themselves amused. In another chapter they freeze their bodies and reawaken far into the future, when people have grown feathers for some reason. These fanciful science-fiction-style chapters are diverting and welcome in such a morbid narrative, though their morals are glum: We may triumph over mortality, but we can’t escape ourselves.
Although Shriver’s novels are often grounded in current affairs, most, at bottom, are about timeless issues of the human heart. As Wendy Smith observed in the Washington Post:
It’s only gradually apparent that this sharp-elbowed satire is also a brusquely tender portrait of enduring love. In many of the chapters, Cyril and Kay end up experiencing old age together, whether it brings surprisingly successful second careers, gradual physical decline or more cataclysmic bad ends — and there are a lot of those. (Don’t even ask what happens to Cyril when he outlives Kay.) Shriver isn’t interested in reassuring us, but in the closing chapter, “The Last Last Supper,” she gives us something more satisfying than reassurance or facile sentiment: a couple honestly assessing their 57 years of marriage and affirming their commitment to each other.
- Read an excerpt from the novel.
- Watch Lionel discuss it.
- Read her 2013 essay on How to Succeed as a Writer.
Lionel Shriver’s Top Ten List
1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940).
2. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
4. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948).
5. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961).
6. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920).
7. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966).
8. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1868).
9. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895).
10. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (1988).