Skip to content

Where to Start with Lionel Shriver

This Orange Prize winner is best known for applying her unflinching nihilism to motherhood in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but there’s so much more to her explorations of how our best intentions tend to bring out the worst in us. Inspired by my enjoyment of her most famous work, I read through the rest of her novels in a reading binge of family dysfunction, struggles with personal hypocrisies, self-destructing relationships, and a surprisingly absurd sense of humor. Here are my personal favorite hits and misses:

Start here:

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin. This is Shriver’s most-appreciated story for a reason. She takes a reluctant mother’s life of florid, conflicting emotions and makes it a taunt reflection on what makes family bonds inherently important and how easily it can all go wrong when her son grows up to be a school shooter. The letter-writing structure might seem corny at first, but it pays off so fiercely in the end that it makes me cry even when I know exactly what’s coming. Bonus: Tilda Swinton is a genius in bringing this character to screen, but make sure to read the book first so you’ll know what inner monologues are running through her head.
  • The Post-Birthday World. The written description of this book makes it sound like a gimmick – it starts at the single point in time of a birthday dinner where a woman in a long-term relationship makes a decision, and each chapter alternates between the futures of her two possible choices. But Shriver uses this like a warped mirror to show startling parallels, surprising differences, and how little any of the details end up mattering in the overall arcs of long-term relationships. I’ve never dated anyone for longer than three years, but I catch myself flinching at the recognizable hard truths that come to light after the ten-plus years of these characters.
  • Go next:

  • The Female of the Species. A female anthropologist got her big break and her heart shattered by the same man posing as a lost tribe’s god in a time when she had to fight to be taken seriously. Now her loyal male assistant is reconstructing her heartache for his own takedown of his rival that he’s masking as a celebration of her achievements. It’s rich with scenic details and gender politics that get even more complicated with hate that struggles into love and loss while careers rise and die around it.
  • A Perfectly Good Family. Shriver writes families like no other. In this tale of three very different siblings who come together to figure out what to do with their parents’ old house, she reveals all the hidden tangles and hiccups through the middle child’s regression into her old peace-making ways. She’s always liked her younger brother and his coolly destructive ways better than her older brother’s uptight structure, but her outward pledged of loyalty to both results in a standoff that will implode at the last possible second. The only thing wrong is this book goes into a bizarrely happy ending that it doesn’t earn, but up until the last few pages, it’s an honest look at how indecision can cause way more problems than honesty between people who are close.
  • Don’t worry about:

  • Game Control. I do like this book about a public health worker who is stationed in a poor African city to spread education about reproductive health, and the motivation behind the doctor who is brought in to help the main character does work as shock value that makes sense, but this is the same basic story as The Female of the Species without as many complicated layers and with a slight detachment that comes naturally with the subject matter.
  • So Much for That. This is a 400+ page argument about the United States’ healthcare system masquerading as a novel about a man who gets unexpectedly terminally sick and how he decides to move his treatment and his family to a Caribbean island. It stays fairly balanced politically, but it’s the only book of Shriver’s I refuse to re-read because none of it’s believable as anything but an excuse to air grievances, and I know she can do that so much better.
  • Check out these and more Shriver titles at Richland Library!


    Amazon Says: A suspenseful and gripping psychological thriller, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin explores the fractious relationship between a mother and her evil son. Tilda Swin more...
    Amazon Says: A suspenseful and gripping psychological thriller, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin explores the fractious relationship between a mother and her evil son. Tilda Swinton, in a bracing, tour-de-force performance, plays the mother, Eva, as she contends for 15 years with the increasing malevolence of her first-born child, Kevin (Ezra Miller). Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, We Need To Talk About Kevin explores nature vs. nurture on a whole new level as Eva's own culpability is measured against Kevin's innate evilness. Ramsay's masterful storytelling simultaneously combines a provocative moral ambiguity with a satisfying and compelling narrative, which builds to a chilling, unforgettable climax. less...
    Amazon

    The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
    Amazon Says: In this eagerly awaited new novel, Lionel Shriver, the Orange Prize-winning author of the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, delivers an imaginative and ent more...
    Amazon Says: In this eagerly awaited new novel, Lionel Shriver, the Orange Prize-winning author of the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, delivers an imaginative and entertaining look at the implications, large and small, of whom we choose to love. Using a playful parallel-universe structure, The Post-Birthday World follows one woman's future as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men.Children's book illustrator Irina McGovern enjoys a quiet and settled life in London with her partner, fellow American expatriate Lawrence Trainer, a smart, loyal, disciplined intellectual at a prestigious think tank. To their small circle of friends, their relationship is rock solid. Until the night Irina unaccountably finds herself dying to kiss another man: their old friend from South London, the stylish, extravagant, passionate top-ranking snooker player Ramsey Acton. The decision to give in to temptation will have consequences for her career, her relationships with family and friends, and perhaps most importantly the texture of her daily life.Hinging on a single kiss, this enchanting work of fiction depicts Irina's alternating futures with two men temperamentally worlds apart yet equally honorable. With which true love Irina is better off is neither obvious nor easy to determine, but Shriver's exploration of the two destinies is memorable and gripping. Poignant and deeply honest, written with the subtlety and wit that are the hallmarks of Shriver's work, The Post-Birthday World appeals to the what-if in us all. less...
    Amazon

    So Much for That: A Novel by Lionel Shriver
    Amazon Says: Shep Knacker has long saved for “The Afterlife”: an idyllic retreat to the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Traffic jams on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway more...
    Amazon Says: Shep Knacker has long saved for “The Afterlife”: an idyllic retreat to the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Traffic jams on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway will be replaced with “talking, thinking, seeing, and being” — and enough sleep. When he sells his business for a cool million dollars, his dream finally seems within reach. Yet his wife Glynis has concocted endless excuses why it’s never the right time to go. Weary of working as a peon for the jerk who bought his company, Shep announces he’s leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her. Just returned from a doctor’s appointment, Glynis has some news of her own: Shep can’t go anywhere because she desperately needs his health insurance. But their policy only partially covers the staggering bills for her treatments, and Shep’s nest egg for The Afterlife soon cracks under the strain. So Much for That follows the profound transformation of a marriage, and Shriver delivers a compelling novel that presses the question: How much is one life worth? less...
    Amazon

    The New Republic: A Novel by Lionel Shriver
    Amazon Says: Acclaimed author Lionel Shriver—author of the National Book Award finalist So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the vivid psychological novel We Need to Talk About more...
    Amazon Says: Acclaimed author Lionel Shriver—author of the National Book Award finalist So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the vivid psychological novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, now a major motion picture—probes the mystery of charisma in a razor-sharp new novel that teases out the intimate relationship between terrorism and cults of personality, explores what makes certain people so magnetic, and reveals the deep frustrations of feeling overshadowed by a life-of-the-party who may not even be present.“Shriver is a master of the misanthrope. . . . [A] viciously smart writer.” —Time less...
    Amazon

    Double Fault by Lionel Shriver
    Amazon Says: An ardent middle-ranked professional tennis player, Willy Novinsky meets her match in Eric Oberdorf, the handsome rogue she drubs in a pick-up game in Manhattan's Riverside Pa more...
    Amazon Says: An ardent middle-ranked professional tennis player, Willy Novinsky meets her match in Eric Oberdorf, the handsome rogue she drubs in a pick-up game in Manhattan's Riverside Park. Eric is charmingly gracious in defeat, and his casual confidence takes her in. Low-ranked but untested, Eric, too, aims to make his mark on the international tennis circuit. Willy beholds compatibility spiced with friendly rivalry, and discovers her first passion outside a tennis court. They marry. Conjugal life starts well on the Upper West Side of New York. But animated shop talk and blissful love-making soon give way to full-tilt competition over who can rise to the top first. Driven and gifted, Willy maintains the lead until she severs her knee ligaments in a devastating spill. As Willy recuperates, her ranking plummets just as her husband becomes the upstart darling of the tennis circuit. Ultimately Eric plays in the U.S. Open. Anguished at falling short of her lifelong dream and resentful of her husband's success, Willy slides irresistibly toward the first quiet tragedy of her young life. Taut as match-point, Double Fault chronicles a marriage imploded by ambition. Just as Richard Yates exposed the dangers of traditional marriage in Revolutionary Road, Lionel Shriver reveals the hazards of a two career relationship. A brilliant novel about the price both men and women pay for prizing achievement over love. less...
    Amazon
    Checker and the Derailleurs by Lionel Shriver
    Amazon Says: A charismatic, brilliant drummer and his band make the perfect setting for a resonant, hilarious, and touching story about youth, jealousy, and ambition. more...
    Amazon Says: A charismatic, brilliant drummer and his band make the perfect setting for a resonant, hilarious, and touching story about youth, jealousy, and ambition. less...
    Amazon

    Big Brother: A Novel by Lionel Shriver
    Amazon Says: Big Brother is a striking novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity from Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed author the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. more...
    Amazon Says: Big Brother is a striking novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity from Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed author the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. For Pandora, cooking is a form of love. Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed high-end cabinetmaker, now spurns the “toxic” dishes that he’d savored through their courtship, and spends hours each day to manic cycling. Then, when Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at the airport, she doesn’t recognize him. In the years since they’ve seen one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? After Edison has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: It’s him or me.Rich with Shriver’s distinctive wit and ferocious energy, Big Brother is about fat: an issue both social and excruciatingly personal. It asks just how much sacrifice we'll make to save single members of our families, and whether it's ever possible to save loved ones from themselves. less...
    Amazon

    Amazon Says: Now a major motion picture by Lynne Ramsay, starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly,Lionel Shriver’s resonant story of a mother’s unsettling quest to understandher teena more...
    Amazon Says: Now a major motion picture by Lynne Ramsay, starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly,Lionel Shriver’s resonant story of a mother’s unsettling quest to understandher teenage son’s deadly violence, her own ambivalence toward motherhood, andthe explosive link between them reverberates with the haunting power of highhopes shattered by dark realities. Like Shriver’s charged and incisive laternovels, including So Much for That and The Post-Birthday World, We Need to Talk About Kevin isa piercing, unforgettable, and penetrating exploration of violence, familyties, and responsibility, a book that the Boston Globe describes as“sometimes searing . . . [and] impossible to put down.” less...
    Amazon
    Print

    Comment about this page...