Today I finished reading Lionel Shriver's novel, So Much for That. I had wanted to read it for a while, simply because I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is about a fictional school massacre, told by the killer's mother in letters). The thing was, I'd read several reviews of So Much For That, and all of them had been quite lukewarm. It's the kind of thing that puts you off buying a book, sadly, and so I got my copy from the library.
Of course, it's not the same story. Kevin is an amazing novel that had me engaged and stunned (in equal parts) from the beginning, not just for the subject matter but also for the insights, the style, the depth and its ability to really, confrontingly, make you think about what it means to be a parent. It was a book that stayed with me long after. But So Much For That has the same depth, the same lingering after-effects. It deals with, among other things, what it's like for a family with a member dying horribly of cancer, and the cost of the US health system and the farce of their health insurance system.
The characters are very real, with many flaws, but never unlikeable. No, this book didn't have the same impact on me that Kevin did, but I still thought it was terrific, and didn't deserve the lukewarm reviews. Is this the legacy of a bestseller?
I thought about different bestsellers that I'd read - Cold Mountain, The Shipping News, Snow Falling on Cedars, The God of Small Things - and what having a major bestseller means to the author's other books. Even if they've sold well before, or there had been other good ones since, somehow they all pale against The Big One. I've read lots of author interviews and what comes through a lot of the time is a weary impatience that this should be so.
It must feel like having several children you love equally but all anyone ever asks you about is the one who won an Olympic gold medal! And if that major bestseller is your first novel, how pressured an author must feel to 'do it again', knowing that it's probably not possible. Still, if nothing else, the bestseller usually sets you up for a great many years of writing without having to worry about how you'll pay the next power bill!