This was the second book discussion I attended and as many people say, book clubs encourage you to read things you would not normally choose and this is one of those. The only other book I have read by Shriver is We Need to Talk about Kevin and I wasn’t a great fan so I wasn’t entirely sure about this one.
I needn’t have worried! I thoroughly enjoyed the book even though it is about situations that are quite close to my heart, as it will be for many people of my age.
The premise sounds quite serious. A couple in their 50s, Cyril a GP and a Kay a nurse, come home from Kay’s father’s funeral and make a pact that when they reach 80 they will commit suicide. Kay and Cyril have been designed to have opposite views on the issues Shriver wants to discuss such as Cyril ranting about those who have any savings or a house having to spend all their money on care and those who are not sensible with their money get their social care paid for and Kay adding that she thinks social care should be a benefit, just like the NHS. These opposing views are present throughout the book even down to Kay sheepishly admitting to be a ‘Leaver’ in the Brexit vote at one point. They are believable as characters but of course they reach the magical age of 80 when the decision becomes more than just talk.
This is where the book becomes so much fun. Each chapter thereafter is devoted to the different decisions that they could take. For instance Kay secretly texting her daughter to tell her what they were going to do and the emergency services turning up but it being too late to ‘save’ Cyril who had retired to his shed and taken his pill. Or, how about having another discussion about taking the tablets and then Kay getting killed the next day by a ‘White Van Man’.
The chapter where Shriver really lets fly is where the couple take a tablet that keeps them young or as Shriver calls it immune to decay.
Certain business sectors suffered. Demand for a variety of products and services shrank or evaporated: creams for the amelioration of spots, wrinkles and eye bags; reading glasses and corrective lenses; hearing-aids; in-home caretaking; walk-in bathtubs, shower-stall rails, transfer discs and electric stair lifts; wheelchairs, canes and walkers; a panoply of pharmaceuticals that treated cancers, hypertension, heart disease, and strokes that soon grew exceedingly rare; artificial hips and knees; pacemakers and stents; pension fund management; the writing of wills and the settlement of estates.p177
But of course, even this Utopia has to end. Kay starts to grow weary of interior decorating and turns her hand to becoming an engineer and then working in a shop, acting in a TV series, she even becomes a bricklayer. In fact you could do anything that you wanted but nobody really knew what they wanted. After having travelled the world three times, explored changing sex and skin colour they eventually became bored and apathetic and consider again the suicide pact.
Shriver has a field day with names – the drug that kept people young is Retrogeritox, the home where the couple are sectioned in another chapter is called Close of Day Cottages, the posh care home is Journey’s End and the cryogenics office is called Sleeping Beauties. The names stereotype the institutions and draw on many of the things we hear on the news, and it has to be said, discuss with families and friends. It’s calling them what they are whilst pretending that they are not.
The delight of this book is that the structure allows the author to play with choices and explore the consequences of each one. It stops the book becoming maudlin or yet another heart-breaking tale of becoming older with an emphasis on the negatives. It was fun and considered consequences I hadn’t thought of such as what happens if cryogenics is available and you are ‘woken up’ 100 years later. What will the world be like? In Shriver’s world, language will have changed so much it isn’t easy to understand people; the ends of words are dropped obvs, fashions have moved on and it seems just a little more Mad Max although with more holograms than the world Cyril and Kay left. The title of the chapter says it all – Love Doesn’t Freeze.
At the bookclub we had an interesting discussion around why some of the members are not fans of Shriver’s writing and I have to say that even though I really enjoyed the book, there were elements that left me uncomfortable. They may not even be Shriver’s point of view but the stereotyping of white van man or a Brexiteer was a little uncomfortable or maybe that it is just that she is picking up and playing back to us how social media, politicians and society speaks about ‘others’, acting as a mirror. And of course, she is making a very valid point about the fact that the number of people aging is growing and the end of our lives can go on for some years now and is not always a great deal of fun. But what else can you do apart from live it?