Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How Much is a Life Worth?

“What do you pack for the rest of your life?”


That’s the first sentence in Lionel Shriver’s book, So Much For That, in which Shep, a disillusioned small businessman, has had enough of the American dream and plans his escape to a small island off the coast of Africa.

Who doesn’t want that?  Right?

But the story wouldn’t be much of a story without a good conflict.  And the conflict comes early in the book when his wife is diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer.

Oh, what to do, what to do?

Although I typically favor the short story genre, I discovered Lionel Shriver this past summer when I read her 2006 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her journalistic style combined with her formidable characters, left me wanting to read more of her work. 

And yet, I paused initially when reading the reviews by HarperCollins for So Much For That, a National Book Award Finalist:

“Enriched with three medical subplots that also explore the human costs of American health care .... Shriver writes a page-turner that presses the question: How much is one life worth? “

I wasn’t so sure I was up for such a weighty topic of a novel dedicated to themes of serious illness set in an unfair healthcare system.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough conflict, Shriver pushes the question about the worth of a human life.

(Mmmm, there are days that I think there are some human lives not worth 2 cents!  Like the guy who cut me off in traffic the other day and found it necessary to give me a lovely hand gesture.)

Sorry, I digressed for a moment.

It is an unpleasant subject matter, but working in hospitals myself for over 20 years, and observing all its anomalies, my interest was piqued in what she had to say. 

Even HarperCollins' review added to my enthusiasm to dive in:

“... it goes about the business of deconstructing the meaning of life very quietly, with humor and a degree of humility. What are we all here for? Is there something better somewhere else?  Or are we merely kidding ourselves? All this is explored in lavish detail, with no pat answers.  It finishes with a wonderful moral that Shriver succeeds in proving brilliantly.  No matter what happens in life, or however we’ve messed up, “We can all still end well”. "

Although parts of the book get a bit lengthy with the tirades on our health care system, the climax offers some sweet revenge.

As the pace quickens towards the end, Shriver teases us with the visions of the Fundu Lagoon resort, with its breathtaking views on the island of Pemba, off the coast of Africa.


I hope The Professor is reading this. 

We are so going there some day. 

Yours truly,
missing the mom gene

2 comments:

Michael Offutt said...

I used to work for Workman's Comp in Idaho before I got my job in Utah. In Idaho, they very specifically have a statute determining the value of human life. It was a pretty complicated chart but essentially, a human life was worth 60% of whatever the wage was times 10 years paid out. So if you got completely smashed by a construction wall, they wrote you a check based off that formula as a destruction of the Whole Person. All benefits are paid out too just like that. For example, if you get your arm injured at work, a doctor assesses an impairment rating as a percent of the whole person. This is then used to percentage out your total benefit as you might be worth in dollars from this original formula (outlined above). I thought it was pretty cold blooded and couldn't believe that this had been hashed out by the congress in such details. Republicans go on and on about Obamacare and the death panels but in my opinion, there's no truer expression of a death panel than assessing in dollars what a person's life is worth.

missing the mom gene said...

The whole system is pretty dismal! Only a country like ours who is consumed about health care does a show like Dr. Oz get to exist!