Review: Big Brother (Lionel Shriver)

Review: Big Brother Amazon| Goodreads
Summary (From Goodreads.com)

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.

Author: Lionel Shriver
Length: 384 pages
Source: Provided by the publisher
Publication Date: May 9th 2013

Plot: ★★★
Characters: ★★★
Readability: ★★★★
Overall: ★★★

My opinion:

After getting a phone call suggesting her brother has fallen on hard times, Pandora doesn’t hesitate to call and invite him to stay with her and her family.  When Edison arrives though, Pandora doesn’t recognise him – he’s put on 200lbs (around 14 stone)  since they last saw each other.

Edison and Pandora’s husband Fletcher immediately get off to a bad start, since Fletcher is a health-crazed, cycling dieter, and Edison loves to indulge in his food.  As their relationship deteriorates further, Fletcher gives Pandora an ultimatum – she has to choose, either Edison goes or Fletcher does!  Pandora moves in with Edison, and they go on a crash diet to try and get him to a healthy weight.

Lionel Shriver tackles a difficult and important topic, and some of the insights into food, self-perception, and social perception of an individual’s weight are excellent. The exploration of the idea that people feel weight is a social issue, rather than a private one, is particularly masterful – how often do you hear a comment about someone’s weight? I know I personally hear those sorts of comments significantly more than comments on other attributes or hobbies that people are happy to ignore, like smoking or drinking.

However, having said that, those frequent insights do sometimes make the book come across as somewhat “preachy”. This is a novel where you can feel the author as you read it, rather than something to get completely lost in.  It didn’t really bother me the first time around, but it’d be interesting to see if they’re more noticeable during a re-read.

The plot itself draws you in well, and once I got into it, I devoured the book within a day.  As well as wanting to know about Edison’s weight, I couldn’t wait to read about Pandora and Fletcher, as well as some of the smaller characters.

The main characters are all very interesting.  You’ve got Pandora herself, a forty-something entrepreneur who gave up her catering business to start making witty, successful dolls. I won’t say anymore on those because the book brings them to life much better than I could! I liked Pandora, though since we see the story through her eyes, her long-winded day dreams and musings occasionally got frustrated.  I also, if I’m honest, couldn’t really believe she would move out of her house with her husband to help Edison when they were having marital trouble.

Fletcher, Pandora’s husband, makes luxury furniture, and spends his free time cycling, exercising and eating healthy organic food.  His furniture is really good, but it’s also expensive, and not as practical as one of those head-scratching IKEA flatpack sets, and so it doesn’t always sell as well as he’d like, which frustrates him.  I would have liked some more fleshing-out of Fletcher, as he felt a bit 2D. Aside from his furniture making, his two kids, and his health kick, there’s very little else to say. We found out a little about his kids, and potentially the motivation behind his healthy eating, but I’d have liked to see a bit more of him.

Characters wise, Edison was the biggest let down for me.  First of all, (and this may well be down to the fact that I’m a UK girl with no knowledge of jazz) Edison’s phrases did my head in!  There were occasions when I didn’t even really know what he meant, and it was only with the rest of the conversation that it became clear.  He also came across as a bit of a cliche, acting like a teenager by never cleaning up after himself, helping himself to whatever he wanted and never owning up to his mistakes. His only real redeeming feature was his friendliness (which strongly wavered at times), so he basically came across as a jolly but lazy person.  I didn’t find him particularly likeable, and that was a huge let down for me – it sort of implied that all morbidly obese people are rude, lazy and irresponsible, which I think is grossly unfair.  For all the insights in this book about judgements based on weight, I feel that a less cliche, more relatable character would have been much more appropriate.

The ending, I suspect, is somewhat like marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it.  If you happen to be one of those tolerant people who doesn’t care either way, this may be the same, but for most people, it will either work for you, or it won’t.  For me personally, it didn’t work, although it made a few things a bit clearer.  The ending made the book really difficult for me to rate: with a different ending, it would have been a solid four stars, but this one knocked it down to three for me.

Big Brother is an interesting take on a critical topic, and would make an ideal book club pick because there are so many insights into a range of topics.  The ending didn’t work for me, but I’m still glad I read it, and I imagine I’ll re-read it too, because until the ending I was really enjoying it.  I could easily see Big Brother becoming a huge hit, and it’s definitely worth a read, if only to make you think.  This one stuck around in my thoughts for days afterwards!

Buy it? This is one I’d probably buy on a deal, or when the paperback comes out.
In a nutshell: At times funny, heart-breaking, insightful and thought-provoking, definitely worth a read.

2 thoughts on “Review: Big Brother (Lionel Shriver)

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