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Lionel Shriver’s latest leaves the reader pondering the boundaries of emotional intimacy, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

The Standing ChandelierThe Standing Chandelier
Lionel Shriver, Harper Collins, R205

Lionel Shriver is a writer who slices close to the bone of human relationships, and in this new work she once again unsheathes her blade and draws blood. It is deceptively short, challenging as it does the belief that straight men and women can never be “just” friends, as well as the notions of jealousy and conjugal fealty.

Weston Babansky and Jillian Frisk met at university and quickly filled in the gaps of each other. Jillian is big, henna-haired and opinionated; Weston quiet and reclusive. Twenty-four years on, and after a couple of brief attempts at igniting a physical relationship, their friendship has mellowed into a close, bantering bond. They have nicknames for each other, play tennis three times a week and gas genially about food, work, politics and their sex lives.

And then Weston starts dating a younger woman called Paige. She is as prissy and PC as Jillian is blowsy and tactless, and she loathes Jillian on sight. Jillian is an artist; generous and creative and is genuinely pleased for Weston when things get serious. She doesn’t understand Paige’s animosity, but Weston says: “You have a strong flavor. Some people just don’t like anchovies.”

Shriver is too perceptive a writer to dish up two-dimensional characters, and we find ourselves swinging from like to dislike of all three, our sympathy shifting as the weeks go by and Paige scrapes away at the friendship. In this time Jillian creates a dazzling piece she calls The Standing Chandelier, a deeply personal representation of her inner and outer life.

When Weston asks Paige to marry him, she issues an ultimatum. It’s her or Jillian. We wonder how she can cause such hurt to the man she loves and watch, appalled, Weston’s response. Trying to grapple back her place in Weston’s affections, Jillian presents the couple with The Standing Chandelier. Weston will have to live with this physical representation of his lost friend.

In the last pages Shriver twists the knife in the wound, leaving the reader pondering the boundaries of emotional intimacy and the precarious nature of human connection. @michelemagwood

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