Shep Knacker, a handyman, plans his whole life around his plan to retire to somewhere cheap. Every vacation is research for what he refers to as “the Afterlife”: checking out a different third world spot where his carefully saved pennies can comfortably buy a good, if not luxurious life for him and his family. Glynis, his wife, while buying into the Afterlife idea in the earlier parts of their marriage, has grown less enthusiastic as the years go by, finding something wrong with every place they investigate. Meanwhile, Shep supports her, buying into her view of herself as a fine artist, though her output dwindles at about the same rate as her enthusiasm for the Afterlife.
Shep sells his wildly successful business to one of his worst employees, and then enters the hell of going from boss to employee. Worse still, he’s in charge of fielding complaints about the shoddy workmanship that never occurred under his watch. It’s more than he can take, and he decides on a leap of faith: he buys non-refundable air tickets to the island of Pemba for the family, promising himself that he’ll go alone if he has to. But when he presents Glynis with his ultimatum, she trumps him. She’s been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She needs him to stay home and keep working, so she’s covered by his insurance.
From there, the story descends into medical and personal hell. In addition to Glynis’ illness, there are two other medical subplots, one life-threatening, and one disfiguring, both involving the family of Shep’s best friend Jackson. The details get gruesome at times. I got to several points in reading the book where I was anxious to put it behind me. But I cared about Shriver’s characters enough to want to see what became of them.
For anyone who’s wondered what kind of time we buy ourselves by taking extreme measures against an illness that almost surely will win, this book has a lot to say. The state of health insurance in this country, especially for people like the characters in this book, who are covered, is given a sobering look . And though several people die before the book ends, it manages to end on an up note.
author photo: David Sandison