Book review: Lionel Shriver’s short fiction dives into social issues
“Property: Stories Between Two Novellas”
If Lionel Shriver weren’t such a terrific writer, she might have had a glorious career as a sociologist. In her latest book, “Property,” she explores a host of contemporary social issues, including freeloading young Americans abroad (“Kilifi Creek”), adult children who won’t leave home (“Domestic Terrorism”) and, in a story titled “Negative Equity,” the housing debt that forces some divorcing couples to stay together under the same roof because they can’t afford to sell.
The common denominator of the 10 stories and two novellas is property, both the spaces we live in and the stuff that we fill them with, including kooky art projects such as the one at the center of “The Standing Chandelier.” It’s the best of the bunch, investigating what happens when Jillian Frisk’s best friend, longtime tennis partner and former lover Weston Babansky, aka Baba, decides to marry another woman, Paige Myer, and Paige lays down an ultimatum: her or me.
Baba is stricken. When Paige accuses him of still harboring feelings for Frisk, he undertakes some soul-searching. “He supposed that, looked at a certain way, some of his girlfriend’s accusations were sort of true. Frisk was a little self- … self-centered, self-involved, self-absorbed? But who wasn’t self-something? It might not have been obvious from the outside, but he himself was wholly and unapologetically self-absorbed.”
Later, playing tennis with Frisk, he considers Paige’s accusation that he’s still attracted to her. He thinks not, then reconsiders. “He treasured her presence. He was accustomed to her presence, at ease in her presence, and her appearance was utterly inseparable from the whole of her: the whooping laugh, the zany ideas, the unreliable crosscourt backhand. So the answer to his point of inquiry was a worthless I don’t know.”
With extraordinary precision and uncanny perceptiveness, Shriver charts the aftermath of Baba’s proposal and Frisk’s impulsive wedding gift of the artwork that lends the story its name. It’s sad, sweet and funny, qualities sometimes missing in the other stories.
Shriver, whose works include 2003’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton, is a brilliant satirist and virtuosic writer. But too many of these stories read like fables designed to illustrate a point. Too many characters are empty vessels, engineered to deliver sneering diatribes on modern life. Still, even if “Property” isn’t your dream house, it’s a diverting enough place to spend an afternoon or two.