What We’re Reading This Weekend: Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles & Trollope’s The Claverings

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Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”–Florence Mandible in Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles

It is hotter than usual this summer. Very hot.  It was 87 at noon, and that is a cool wave.  We don’t like it, but we’re used to it now.  What helps?  Water.  Lots of  water.

But will we always have water?  In Lionel Shriver’s clever, witty dystopian novel, The Mandibles:  A Family, 2029-2047, water is a luxury. There is no water in the West and there is a shortage in New York.

Shriver writes about four generations of the Mandible family.  The Mandibles have always been rich:  their fortune was built, ironically, on diesel engines (obviously a contributing factor to the pollution in 2029).  But this book is really about money:  what happens when the economy tanks in 2029 after the dollar is declared worthless in the global economy?    The U.S. has already survived “the Stonage,” when the internet was knocked out, the only real source of communication since people stopped reading print books and newspapers.  (The internet’s back.)  The Mandibles assumed there would always be money, and that they would inherit when  99-year-old Douglas Mandible, a former literary agent, died.

Now they’re poor.

My favorite character, Florence Mandible, has a “moronic double major in American Studies and Environmental Policy” and barely makes a living at her job at a shelter.  But she is good at managing water at her house in Flatbush for her partner, Esteban, and her son, Willing.  When Willing wants to take a shower, Florence thinks,

Her thirteen-year-old had bathed only five days ago, and knew full well they were all allotted one shower per week (they went through cases of comb-in dry shampoo).  Willing complained, too, that standing under their ultra-conservation shower was like “going for a walk in the fog.” True, the fine spray made it tricky to get conditioner out, but then the answer wasn’t to use more water.  It was to stop using conditioner.

The other Mandibles are fascinating though less likable:  Florence’s  therapist sister, Avery, can barely deny herself gourmet food even when her dinner guests can’t afford smoked salmon and fine wine, and her husband, an economist/professor, is a twit who tries to play by the old rules of the economy and loses all their money.  (And they have spoiled children who can’t believe they can no longer attend Sidwell Friends School.)  Florence and Avery’s father, Carter, a former journalist, must take in his father,  Douglas, and his younger wife, who has Alzehimer’s, after they are evicted from their palatial home in an assisted living/nursing home compound.   (Carter won’t let Douglas take his rare books.  He says impatiently that Douglas can download books.)

Information about money is presented in dialogue, and perhaps there are too many details. Like Florence, I’ve always found money “drear.”  But Shriver makes it simple, and if you read science fiction, you’re used to lots of complicated background that makes the future world believable.

I’m only one third of the way through it, and it’s entertaining.

the claverings oxford trollope 9780192817273-us-300AND NOW FOR TROLLOPE’S THE CLAVERINGS.   Trollope is a remarkable writer, one of the most consistent of all the Victorian writers.  He wrote 47 novels: perhaps that’s why he is underrated, as everyone says, though it does seem to me that every blogger reads Trollope.  The Claverings is not well-known, but it is very good indeed. And, according to the introduction to the Dover edition, the biographer Michael Sadlier called it one of Trollope’s three “faultless books,” the other two being Doctor Thorne and Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite.

The Claverings revolves around love and marriage: a typically Victorian plot, but imaginatively and originally treated. The hero, Harry Clavering, the son of the rector at Clavering, is in love with Julia Brabazon, a wicked, witty woman who is honest about her mercenary nature.  She jilts Harry and marries Lord Onger, a rich, dissipated, drunken man who looks 20 years older than his age (36).   Harry’s cousin, Hugh Clavering, a baronet, is Julia’s brother-in-law, and introduces her to Lord Onger.  He very cynically doesn’t care what happens to Julia.

Harry is inconsolable–for a while.  But he apprentices himself for a year to an engineer/surveyor,  Mr. Burton, and falls in love with and proposes to Burton’s daughter Florence, who is smart, likable, and ladylike. I like Florence, but she is only sketched (or so it seems so far) and Julia is clearly Trollope’s favorite. ( I must confess, she is my favorite, too.

After Lord Onger dies, Julia comes back to England.  And guess who falls in love with Julia again?

What I like about this is that Trollope doesn’t idealize Harry.  In London, away from Florence, Harry is weak and prefers Julia.  He is not heroic.

He longed to go again to Bolton Street, but he did not even do that.  If there, he could act only as though Florence had been deserted for ever;–and if he so acted he would be infamous for life.  And yet he had sworn to Julia that such was his intention.  He hardly dared to ask himself which of the two he loved.  The misery of it all had become so heavy upon him that he could take no pleasure in the thought of his love.  I must always be all regret, all sorrow, and all remorse.

No spoilers here, because frankly I don’t know what happens.  Will it end conventionally?  Well, probably.  But in the meantime I am glued to it.

An Interview with Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver, the author of the brilliant novel, Big Brother,  generously agreed to be interviewed by Mirabile Dictu via email.

First, a little background.

Shriver, who won the Orange Prize in 2005 for her novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, garnered more praise last spring for her new book, Big Brother, a compelling novel centered on obesity and dieting she wrote after her obese brother’s death at 55 from complications from diabetes.

But this is not just a Fat novel; it is also the great Midwestern novel, with an extraordinary detail paid to the setting.

Big Brother Lionel ShriverObesity is an epidemic in the Midwest:  when a once-svelte relative showed up on my porch last year, I wondered with irritation who she was and then was overcome with love when I recognized her beautiful face within the new weight; perhaps she didn’t know who I was, either.

Big Brother, set in New Holland, Iowa, a fictitious town in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area, is the story of Pandora, the founder of a successful talking doll business, and her brother, Edison, a jazz musician.  When Edison comes to visit, she is not prepared for his obesity:  he used to be a handsome surfer-looking guy.  After a prolonged visit, she decides to save him:  they move into an apartment together and go on a  diet.

And here is the interview.

MIRABILE DICTU:   It must have been difficult to write a novel about obesity and eating disorders after your brother’s death.

LIONEL SHRIVER: The sorrow that initially spurred me to write the novel provided a kind of fuel.  I missed my brother, of course, and I also wanted to craft, if not exactly a tribute, a marker.  An object that recognized not only his death but his life.  That said, the character of the brother, Edison, in the novel is quite distinct from my real brother.

What really made this book difficult was trying add something to a conversation about weight and food that we’ve been having in glossy magazines and on television ad nauseam.  I had to find a way to add value, to deepen the discourse.  It was especially challenging to write about being on a diet in a way that was true to the awful tedium of the experience but that didn’t bore the pants off my readers.

MIRABILE DICTU:  I am fascinated by the Midwestern setting, and originally picked this up as a Midwestern novel.  So many of the details are authentic that I raced through Big Brother, and then my husband read it, too.  It is clear that you understand Midwestern politics, the politics of food, ethanol, etc.  Did you spend time here, or was it all done from research?  (Shriver is an American who lives in England.)

LIONEL SHRIVER: I did do some research in Iowa when I decided to set the novel there.  However, I’ve been doing that research sporadically all my life.  My maternal grandparents lived there (in Muscatine, and later Pella), my mother is from there, my aunt and uncle still live there, and for years I visited cousins there before they dispersed to other parts of the country.  Most of all, my younger brother, to whom I am very close, lives in Coralville, near Iowa City.  I go out to visit him and his family pretty much every summer.  I have a lot of affection for the Midwest, Iowa in particular, and I hope that tenderness is apparent in the novel.  I love the landscape and the light.  I appreciate the way Iowans in everyday life are so open and eager to connect.  I savor their lack of pretension.  I admire a state that actually produces something of value (even if I’m dubious about the ethanol industry).  And I’m impatient with the way coastal urbanites tend to write off the Midwest as nowheresville.  As one character comments, “Iowa is somewhere, which is the most that anywhere can claim.”

MIRABILE DICTU: What writers, if any, influenced you in writing Big Brother?

LIONEL SHRIVER:I guess I would give some credit to Ian McEwan, since structurally my ending owes a debt to “Atonement.”

MIRABILE DICTU:  When and why did you begin writing?

LIONEL SHRIVER:  I began writing when I learned to read.  From the start, I enjoyed the ability to create something from nothing, which in physics they tell you is impossible.

MIRABILE DICTU:  Who are your favorite writers?

LIONEL SHRIVER:  Richard Yates, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, TC Boyle …  That a good start?


And thank you very much for the interview, Lionel.  I’m sure my fellow readers and bloggers will appreciate your thoughtful answers.