Novelist Lionel Shriver uncovering health care's ills and feeling gratitude

Staff artist Patterson Clark created the sketch of Lionel Shriver using the Brushes app on the iPhone. Watch this time-lapse video of the sketch's development.
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

In choosing a restaurant for Lionel Shriver, I'd been told that the novelist needed a location close to American University, as she'd be coming straight from a WAMU interview. Presented with a few dining options, Shriver's publicist selected Chef Geoff's in Wesley Heights and we set the time for 2. When Shriver's meal arrived -- tuna, rare, a side of greens -- she proceeded to remove from her purse a small glass jar, unscrew the lid and dump a quarter cup of red chili flakes all over the meal.

"I'm really tired," she says, as the fish disappears in a lava pit of peppers, "of trying to get people to make things hot enough for me."

One recognizes that sometimes food choices symbolize nothing. One is aware of the absurd scrutiny placed on the dietary habits of celebrities. This is why one is almost able -- almost, but not quite -- to resist making the following observation:

It might be impossible for things ever to be hot enough for Lionel Shriver.

Her most well-known work, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," was a firestorm meditation on maternal ambivalence, furtively passed around middle-class mommy circles after its 2003 publication. "Kevin" was "about" a school massacre in the same way "Anna Karenina" is "about" adultery, and it required readers to reconsider such basic notions as unconditional mother's love and unforgivable evil. Her other novels have been similarly brutal, with topics ranging from population control to terrorism.

In Britain, where Shriver, 52, has lived for two decades, she is famous, a winner of the prestigious Orange Prize. She's less well known in the States ("When I do appearances in the U.K. they're sold out; when I come to my own country if 30 people show up," it's big). She dearly hopes this will change with her new novel, a further example of her skillful uncovering of societal IEDs just as they detonate.

"So Much for That" is "about" the American health-care system, which is to say it is about how illness and insurance can deplete savings, kindness and humanity. Protagonist Shepherd Knacker's wife was recently given a diagnosis of incurable mesothelioma; his best friend deals with a teenage daughter's horrific genetic disorder. Chapters open with ever-dwindling dollar amounts, as Shep sees his financial security disappear and guiltily wonders exactly how much Glynis's life is worth.

Shriver happened to be in Washington the day after the House of Representatives passed the health-care bill that had divided the nation for months.

"I have supported the bill, but I wish it were better," she says, after sloughing off a heavy leather jacket and settling into the table. "I support single payer, and I resented the fact that it was taken off the table. . . . I did have a fun little moment yesterday in my hotel, though, turning to C-SPAN and realizing, 'This is happening right over there.' "

Sadly, for her tourism purposes: "I haven't seen a real live tea partier."

'It's body over mind'

She takes a moment to glance at the menu before asking the waiter if she could order plain tuna, which isn't on it. Lunch is a foreign experience for her, she says. She normally skips it altogether, saving the calories for dinner.

So to truly capture the Lionel Shriver lunching experience, we should be . . .

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