All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

on May 7, 2013

Big BrotherBig Brother
Lionel Shriver
Harper Collins AU
2013, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Pandora is a former caterer turned business entrepreneur, married to Fletcher and adoptive mother to his two children. For Pandora, cooking is a lovely way to bring the family together, to show she loves them but Fletcher has lately been on a health kick and he rarely ever indulges in the treats Pandora so loves to make.

When Pandora hears that her older brother Edison is a bit down on his luck in New York, she sends the jazz musician a ticket so that he can come and stay for a while. When she goes to meet him at the airport, Edison is so changed that Pandora doesn’t even recognise the heavily obese man being brought into the terminal in a wheelchair as Edison. When she saw him 4 years ago, he was a trim 163lbs. Now he is within reaching distance of 400lbs. Pandora is horrified and tries her best to hide it but she wants to know what has brought about this change in the handsome, proud man who was her brother.

It isn’t long before Edison is the proverbial elephant in the room – everyone tiptoeing around the issue of his ballooning weight. Fletcher is disgusted, Pandora mystified as Edison steadily eats his way through the contents of their pantry and cooks lavish, fat-soaked meals as a way to express his gratitude at being given a place to stay.

When Pandora finds out that Edison has been lying to her after his two month stay and that he doesn’t have any work lined up, nor does he have a place to stay, she is torn. Fletcher has already more than had enough of their inconsiderate houseguest who is like a 400lb teenager – Edison doesn’t tidy up after himself, he puts the household out of routine and his size presents several problems in terms of furniture, getting out and about and even household amenities. Fletcher issues his wife an ultimatum – if Edison stays, then Fletcher himself will leave, with the two kids.

And then Pandora has an idea….maybe she can help her brother and keep her marriage intact.

Big Brother is the latest novel from acclaimed author Lionel Shriver. I’ve only read two of her books before and I absolutely loved both of them – We Need To Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World. I also own So Much For That but I haven’t read it yet. I love the way Shriver tackles an issue and in Big Brother the issue is weight, the obesity epidemic and body image.

Pandora has I think, a natural reaction to finding out that her brother has gone from 163lbs (74kgs, quite slim for a man) to 386lbs (about 175kgs). The man she has known, whom she has looked up to, has disappeared beneath a layer of blubber so thick that she didn’t even recognise him at first glance. She can’t imagine what would’ve brought about such a change in the jazz piano player, who has played with some talented people on some well respected albums. Edison left home at 17 to make it in New York and despite that, the two of them have always been close, anchored by their childhood as children of a narcissistic television star. Pandora wants to get to the bottom of Edison’s depression and what is causing this overeating and help him.

Shriver takes a broad swipe at how we perceive people and judge, purely on looks. Edison faces ridicule, strange looks in the street that range from disgust to pity. He doesn’t fit into normal airplane seats or restaurant seats. He can’t sit on any of the lovingly crafted handmade furniture that Fletcher builds. It’s an effort just to get him into the car. Pandora sees the way that people look and she feels ashamed but yet she can’t bring herself to really tackle the core issues with Edison. She knows that she herself is guilty of judging people how they look, of being conscious of her weight – she has put on close to 20lbs since she married Fletcher and she judges herself. She doesn’t like recent photos of herself because of her weight gain, she prefers the photos from her catering days even though she seems aware that she was perhaps too thin at this time.

And that’s the never-ending debate. Too fat, too thin, judged for both. There are whole magazines devoted to lovingly picturing celebrities looking too fat, looking too thin, gleefully dissecting every pound gained and lost. Obesity is a rising problem in countries such as America and Australia, with the average size having increased considerably, yet clothing sizes are being made toward the smaller end of the scale, trying to force people to fit themselves into a mold. Fast food and junk food are on the rise, popping up every where and the busy lifestyles of often two working full time parents can mean that freshly prepared meals have fallen by the wayside. And so Pandora wants to help.

What follows does trip the reader (or at least, it did me) in terms that it seems far too effortless and I was wondering where Shriver was going with it all when the ending made everything clear for me. I think without that, I would’ve found this book a little unsatisfying but the way in things neatly change did help me have more of an understanding on Pandora’s thoughts and perhaps what she greatly desired but couldn’t bring into effect. Pandora and Edison are such great characters, knitted together by their childhood and the way in which they ridicule their father, who played a father on TV but didn’t so much play one at home. Apart from tackling weight and health, Shriver also gives an insight into blended family dynamics and the push-pull factor in parenting someone else’s children. Her writing is, as always, effortless, engaging and intelligent. Truly enjoyable to read and ponder over.

8/10

Book #110 of 2013

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11 responses to “Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

  1. I’m hoping that Shriver comes to Australia to talk about this book. I have been to two of her book launches and she is fascinating to hear speak – thoughtful, passionate (angry?!) about particular issues and complex. I haven’t read this one yet but really looking forward to it now 9particularly given what you said about the ending!).

    • After I wrote this review, I read an interview with Shriver which said that a very similar thing happened to her own brother in real life – he put on a huge amount of weight and she saw the way that people reacted to it. I’d absolutely love to hear her speak too. I think she’s amazing!

      • KJ says:

        I saw her (and got my 1sr of Kevin signed!) on her last book tour around Australia. She is uber smart and does not suffer fools lightly. I was totally star-struck and grinned like a fool when she actually spoke to me, rather than answer her question!

  2. ‘So Much For That’ was inspired by her friend’s battle with cancer. Interestingly, the friend lived in the UK and was basically given palliative care and Shriver felt that had she lived in the US, she would have been ‘encouraged’ to ‘fight’ the cancer with any means (medical/financial) available. The book was her sideways swipe at the US health system. Very interesting when you know the background!

  3. I’ve been meaning to read some more Lionel Shriver, maybe this should be on my TBR

  4. Belle says:

    This sounds like such an interesting concept. I’m intrigued, but I have to say I tried reading We Need To Talk About Kevin and didn’t get very far. I feel like I should revisit it or maybe I should check this out first.

  5. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out says:

    I wanted to grab this from Netgalley but I couldn’t fit it in my schedule, I will definitely pick it up eventually though

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