marginalia || A Perfectly Good Family, by Lionel Shriver

This post is a little disjointed. But I’m cashing in my I Can Use This Blog for Bibliophilic Navel-Gazing Card. So, yes. I am mostly talking to myself here:

In the early days of this blog, I fell all over myself trying to express how much I loved the author’s novel, The Post-Birthday World–that book’s now one of my most favorite novels evahr. This produced one particular drawback: I steered clear of her work, just certain that nothing will match the awesomeness of TPBW. I found her books in secondhand bookstores and BookSales, and I told myself, NO.

This way of thinking, I realize now, is sort of stupid, haha. Oh, Sasha of little faith–did I really think that one not-as-good book would ruin a great experience forever? And so I settled to read one of Lionel Shriver‘s earlier novels, A Perfectly Good Family (with thanks to Erica, who hosted a giveaway!)

And I was extremely disappointed. It wasn’t just because it failed to live up to my expectations. [See, TPBW made such an impact in my life–both the reading one and the real one–that I’m resigned to the fact that a lot of Shriver’s backlist would likely pale in comparison (I mean, a lot of novels by other authors can’t hold a candle to that book, me thinks). But Shriver is a good writer–just because the story of that other book so gripped me, doesn’t mean her storytelling’s chopped liver. That is, expectations aside:] this novel failed to be good read. On its own merit (or shortage thereof).

Now that we have that out of the way, an elaboration is in order. See, well, the novel centers around a triumvirate of incredibly flawed siblings–Mordecai, Truman, and our narrator Corlis McCrea. Their parents are dead, and their wrangling over their inheritance, which is mostly Heck-Andrews (an historic North Carolina mansion built after the Civil War). Sounds straightforward enough, I guess?

Yes: [1] This book cements my opinion that Shriver’s a masterful character writer. Although the characters run the gamut of archetypal to cliché to stereotypical to whoayouareannoying, they’re all well-written. They’re solid people, incredibly flawed, often annoying. Very often annoying. But I was annoyed at them as people–because as characters, they’re seamless. Shriver takes her time exploring the characters, even if it means exploring why one is such an archetype/stereotype/cliché. [2] Shriver’s language is flawless. Intelligent, though off-putting at times [did I just say that intelligence was off-putting?!]. Okay. That is, the voice of the narrator was just so distinct, and it’s in her voice that we learn of this story. And Corlis, well, Corlis isn’t always the most appealing person on earth. Anyway. The language. I liked. Yes. Leave it at that. Yeah, I should put in a quote as an example–because how can people draw their own conclusions? Heh? Well. Never mind. Too lazy. Too navel-gazing-y. Carry on.

No: [1] Just the plot, you know? How it develops. The premise was intriguing enough, but the story lacked something. Something like heart? Something like sense? Something like unpredictability? What does it say that for most of the novel, I was moaning, “Why don’t you just do this? The solution’s so obvious!” And at the end I’d gone, “Oh no you bleeping didn’t!” It made me feel like the book was–despite the language, despite the characters–largely a waste of time.

GAH. I’ll probably make more sense the more time I spent away from this book. It was meh. The whole experience was meh. Oh, it had its high points, but I should’ve taken the hint when the book had been Currently Reading for too many days. Damned novel refused to end. Augh. I should’ve stayed clear of Shriver. But I suspect that I picked the wrong book to reacquaint myself with.

You’re off to a nice start, March.


Some random reading-in-general notes: [1] Echoes of The Believers by Zoe Heller, with all that unlikable-families shtick. [2] I still think The Post-Birthday World is one of the best novels ever, but I am incredibly biased. [3] Am reading next: I was looking at the Sasha Shelf here at P.’s, and figured Sudden Rain by a new-to-me author, Maritta Wolff, would do okay for my next book. But. I don’t know anymore, haha.

11 thoughts on “marginalia || A Perfectly Good Family, by Lionel Shriver

  1. That’s kind of how I felt with The Post-Birthday World actually. I wanted to feel as overwhelmingly impressed and struck by it as I had been by We Need to Talk about Kevin. Which left me speechless. Perhaps her fiction is just too honest? So much so that you can’t experience her voice the same way twice? I will read more … because I don’t think anybody else does quite what she does … but there might never be another for me like ‘Kevin’ was.

    1. This fascinates me; I wonder if someone out there swears by A Perfectly Good Family and thinks all the other were a letdown? :) I am yet to read We Need to Talk About Kevin, though I know that’s the more widely loved work of Shriver. There is no doubt, though, that Shriver is a wonderful writer. Her depth of her characters, the often intelligent and biting tone, the language.

  2. The only Lionel Shriver book I ever LOVED was WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, so I was slightly disappointed by PBW (like BuriedIn Print). The biggest disappointment, for me, however, is the upcoming SO MUCH FOR THAT. I think I just have to accept that nothing is going to measure up to the feelings I had after WNTTAK.

    1. Hi, Sue. This makes me even more afraid that when I read We Need to Talk About Kevin, I’ll be turning my back from The Post-Birthday World. I’m beginning to suspect that Shriver is a one-book-per-person kind of author. I was hoping that So Much for That would be another great read (although, yeah, I need to get to WNTTAK soon, haha)–I’ve looked through Shriver’s backlist, and I’ve noticed that the danger of her versatility re topics is that I won’t like one, or most. Like, I don’t want to read about tennis. Then again, TPBW had me reading about snooker. Hm.

  3. I gotta say, I really appreciate your honesty in your reviews. You’re not afraid to say you hate a book. I feel like my reviews don’t have enough “mmph” to them sometimes. It’s mostly because I haven’t read a book I’ve despised in at least a year (pre-blogm the last being My Sister’s Keeper…AGHHHHH)…and also because I don’t want to turn someone off the book; I want them to form their own opinion. But next time I read a “meh” book, I think I’ll try and channel your honesty and be a little more critical. I dig your style, yo.

    1. Aw, thanks, Kari. :] Thank you. :] I began this blog because I wanted an online record of my reading journal–and they posts are either lifted from my notebook, or based on them. So it’s a more personal blog, I guess, and whenever I think that I just might offend people out there, I tell myself that I’m just talking to myself, haha. Trust me: the fact that WordPress stats tell me that people have been walking around these parts, it always gets me giddy, ahaha, like, “Oh, I’m kinda not alone here after all,” :p

  4. This is very interesting for me to read because after staying up ALL NIGHT reading So Much For That, literally unable to put it down, I took several other Shriver books out of the library and couldn’t get past the first few pages of any of them. I’m going to persevere, though.

    1. Shriver and I have a complicated relationship, as you can see from above. But I do hope you try The Post-Birthday World–it’s one of my favorite books. And though I haven’t read it, people have so many good things to say about We Need to Talk About Kevin.

  5. Hello Sasha! Interesting theory on Lionel Shriver’s books. Guess I’m the one in-between ;) I read first WNTTAK, and I loved it so, so much (definetly one of my favourites ever), that I went straightaway to PBW, and… I loved it as well. No wonder it’s among your favourites. It’s amazing how Shriver gets inside the characters’ pysche and ditches clichés and universally accepted “truths” to expose the raw, real truth. I’m currently reading A perfectly good family, and though I must admit I’m not loving it as much as the other two, it has Shriver’s trademarks alright (clever writing, dark humour, fascinatingly honest characterization) and I’m just devouring it.
    Go on, read Kevin, I’m pretty sure you’ll just love it.

    1. Thanks, Hugo. I’ve actually read We Need to Talk About Kevin several weeks ago, but can’t bear to talk about it. I don’t think I’m able to — at least not any time soon. I love that book so much, it shook me while I was reading it. Shriver’s a risk-taking writer, and she often pulls it off, and when she does, it’s really memorable.


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