In 2029, the United States is engaged in a bloodless world war that will wipe out the savings of millions of American families. An eccentric, former wealthy family must contend with the loss of their expected inheritance, but also—as the U.S. economy spirals into dysfunction—the challenge of sheer survival.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, full of discussions of economic policy and the efficacy or not of the gold standard, nevertheless contains Jane Austen-like dissections of class distinction and grandly satirical swipes at foodies and oenophiles. It’s also a provocative and very funny page-turner ... Ms. Shriver has good fun with futurisms, including the continuing reign over Russia by Vladimir Putin, 'Mr. President for Life'; a U.S. presidential primary whose challenger is 'leftwing grandee Jon Stewart'; and a tempered use of invented slang ... Ms. Shriver skillfully foregrounds Willing’s perspective, a narratively charged vantage point from which morality takes a back seat to survival ... The future is grim, but Ms. Shriver with characteristically sardonic humor keeps things from getting heavy-handed.
If the novel is initially slow to gather momentum, it’s because the set-up it requires is so complex, and because Shriver’s research is so exhaustive. Thus the reader is fed tranches of economic theory in the early chapters, made scarcely more palatable for being dressed up as dinner-party conversations...But once the premise has been established as all too chillingly plausible, the novel revs up into a multifaceted family saga where marital, sibling and inter-generational relationships fracture in the face of increasingly punitive sanctions and shortages ... Shriver presents this future with her familiar undercurrent of black humour and a sly nod to the reader ... But for all the sharp-edged comedy (a thriving Mexico builds a border wall to keep out desperate illegal Americans), and for all that it ends with a knowing Orwellian wink, The Mandibles is a profoundly frightening portrait of how quickly the agreed rules of society can fall apart without money to grease the wheels.
The Mandibles approaches the imminent collapse of American society from the right side of the political spectrum...This would be refreshing, as dystopias go, if Shriver’s novel wasn’t so burdened with dialogue in which the characters repeatedly explain to each other the reasons for America’s calamitous fall. They’re really lecturing the reader, of course, their main themes being initiative-sapping big government and the frauds perpetuated by the Federal Reserve ... Becoming bluntly partisan, the novel uses fantasy and name-checks to score points against Florence’s fellow liberals in her time and ours. The immigration amnesty of 2020 is followed by a constitutional amendment that allows for a foreign-born president: a pudgy, lisping Mexican, just one of the novel’s several racist characterizations ... At times, Shriver’s novel reads like the 'FoxLiberty-Ultra' version of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, without the humor, but it more often recalls the libertarian fables of the classic science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein ... Shriver is, nevertheless, an engaging writer. Even with their speechifying and the tediousness of the story, her characters solicit your sympathy, much more than they usually do in genre science fiction. And also, as in good science fiction, you often have to look up from the page to remind yourself that you don’t live on the planet that’s being described.