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BOOK REVIEW: Property – A Collection by Lionel Shriver

| 5 September 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Property – A Collection by Lionel Shriver

Harper Collins Publishers
April 2018
Paperback, $35.00
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Short Stories

8.5/10

Lionel Shriver is a renowned storyteller and the author of We Need to Talk about Kevin. She’s also a brilliant observer and one could argue that she missed her calling as a psychologist. As a writer, she has made some bold choices by exploring and making sense of the darker facets of the human psyche. She isn’t afraid to create and deconstruct unlikeable characters and explore what makes them tick and their motivations. In Property – A Collection she follows this same path by offering readers ten short stories and two novellas about our insatiable obsession with ownership and having control over things. The result is one highly entertaining and topical set.

Jillian pursued purposelessness as a purpose in itself. It had taken her some years to understand that she’d had such trouble settling on a career because she didn’t want one. She was surrounded by go-getters, and they could have their goals, their trajectories, their aspirations—their feverish toiling towards some distant destination that was bound to disappoint in the unlikely instance they ever got there. Some folks had to savor the world where they were, as opposed to glancing out the driver’s window while tearing off somewhere else. This was less a prescriptive ideology than a simple inclination to languor or even laziness; Jillian cheerfully accepted that. She wasn’t so much out to convert anyone else as to simply stop apologizing.

Perhaps the best story included here is “The Standing Chandelier.” This is a novella about two friends and former lovers named Jillian and Weston. The pair meet up and play tennis a few times each week. They share a close connection even though the two never seemed to be able to make a romantic relationship work between them. This tennis-playing arrangement works well for both of them until Weston meets Paige, a woman who becomes his girlfriend and eventually his wife. Jillian offers the pair a lavish and thoughtful wedding gift, a chandelier she lovingly made especially for them. What Jillian doesn’t know is that she’s not invited to the wedding because Paige hates her and that the latter has issued Weston an ultimatum about his friendship.

“I realize how hard it is for you to take it this way, but that chandelier is important to her, and I’m sure it was hard for her to part with it. That was a lavish gift. Emotionally lavish.”
“In which case, it’s even more inappropriate. It’s excessive, as usual. She has no business giving you an ‘emotionally lavish’ gift. What’s wrong with a set of coasters?”
“That chandelier was a labor of love.”
“A labor of love for herself! Those knickknacks glued every which way are all about her. A wedding present should be about us. Honestly, I no sooner begin to see the horizon beyond which we can stop fighting over that woman than she moves into our house. As a leering, beady-eyed monstrosity, peering at us while we eat. It’s not any different than if Tracey Emin gave us her filthy bed. With used condoms, cigarette butts, and smears of menstrual blood on the sheets.”

Shriver is wonderfully adept at crafting different layers and offering up complex worlds in her work. In “The Standing Chandelier” she alternates between the perspectives of Jillian and Weston. This is a delicious treatise about whether men and women can actually be platonic friends. The chandelier acts as an emotional Trojan horse and a means to examine all of this. The story is a tad exaggerated at times but you get the sense that a lot of people will relate to the moral quandaries that are explored here.

“If that lamp is symbolic of anything, it’s symbolic of my friendship with Frisk. Because she’s right on one point: it’s always going to remind you of her. So why on earth would you want to hang on to it?”
“Because it distresses me that all this time later, with one lousy go-fetch email, you’ll still do her bidding. Which makes me wonder.’
“Don’t wonder,” he said with annoyance. He was no longer wondering himself. ‘That lamp doesn’t only remind my wife of her adversary. It reminds her of winning. “But what on earth can I write back?”
“I could draft that email in a heartbeat. ‘Dear Jillian: What you’re asking goes so beyond the limits of decorum that it’s off the charts. A wedding present is forever, just like my marriage. Have a nice life.’”
“I guess I’ll have to think about it.”
Her laughter had an unpleasant color. “What a shock.”

Another story that is played up for full comedic effect while also being grounded in realism is “Domestic Terrorism.” In this one, two parents try to evict their adult son from their house in a case that is eerily reminiscent of the recent news story involving Michael Rotondo. In Shriver’s case, the layabout is Liam, a man-child who is a man-hole cover enthusiast who takes advantage of the murky domestic situation by moving in his pregnant girlfriend and launching a protest against his parents. In doing so, he catches the media’s attention and becomes an overnight internet sensation.

Whimsy wasn’t much help when the inevitable occurred: news teams descended from WSB-TV and Fox 5. As his parents peered around the carport, Liam held forth for the cameras with more lucidity than he’d ever employed at the dinner table, suggesting that perhaps his eviction would be the making of the man after all. Harriet couldn’t discern the whole interview, but did catch snippets—about “the well-off’s indifference to the plight of those less fortunate” and “the disenfranchised simply seeking a better life,” phrases he had clearly lifted wholesale from the coverage of the European migration crisis, as well as despair of “intergenerational inequality” and “the sacrifice of affordable housing to the scourge of luxury condominiums.”

In other stories Shriver utilises her wit and wisdom to create a story about a man losing his cool at an airport. There’s also a bohemian couple whose relationship deteriorates after they choose to purchase the ramshackle house that they had been renting for a long time. Another story involves an unwanted house guest – in this case, it’s a woman whose temporary lodging arrangement suddenly feels permanent to her irritated landlord.

Yet keeping track was not attractive, not even to Sara herself. Helplessly, she kept a lengthening mental ledger of trifling material grievances: Moira had never returned Sara’s bone-handled umbrella after that downpour. Despite fulsome promises at the time, Patrick had yet to replace the blue-and-white china platter he’d cracked at a raucous dinner party years ago; Sara hadn’t reminded him, but neither had she forgotten, and the friendship itself had suffered from a fine fissure ever since. After she’d splurged on a round-trip flight to Boston for his birthday, Brendan had returned the gesture on hers with a lone Terry’s Chocolate Orange once their romance had gone off the boil. But she knew her list was shameful, and its extent and incriminating detail were well-kept secrets.

Lionel Shriver is ultimately a clever and witty author and Property is a reflection of this. She writes rich tales and she crafts such well-developed and realised characters that they practically leap off the page and make you feel like that they are there with you as you’re reading about them. This is topical and contemporary fiction at its absolute finest.

“Welcome to my world,” Elliot said. “There are only two bargains in the UK: marmalade, and breakfast cereal. Meanwhile, everyone here is taking buying-binge trips to New York. They think everything is half price.”
“Never mind a few shopping sprees, I don’t know why the whole population of Britain doesn’t pick up and move to the United States. We may have an idiot president, who keeps sending the US army on walkabout in Middle Eastern quicksand. But at least you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy a sandwich.”

Property – A Collection has a lot in common with Shriver’s other works in that it holds up a mirror to humankind and in doing so is utterly revealing about our best and worst qualities, our strengths and foibles alike. Property – A Collection is focused specifically on our human desire for ownership and control over things. It gives such a compelling and tantalising look at this aspect of ourselves that one can only wonder what Shriver will pick to have next in her crosshairs.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her websites are: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com and www.myshitdate.com

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