Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

The diet industry is perhaps the most lucrative business in this country. Millions of Americans are fat and wish they weren't. In fact they wish it so powerfully that they open their wallets time after time after time to try and shave off pounds. But how on earth did we as a society get this way? We're told over and over again how bad it is for our health to be substantially overweight. We endure the jibes of comedians who can still poke fun at a person's size in ways that jokes centered on sex, race, and religion are no longer tolerated. We blame the person him or herself for lack of self-control and find obesity visually repellent. We are completely and totally size-obsessed and yet we as a society, are heavier than ever. Lionel Shriver, who is known for not shying away from the difficult issues that plague our society, has taken on the obesity epidemic in her latest novel, Big Brother.

Pandora Halfdanarson is a wealthy entrepreneur running a company that makes personalized dolls which parrot people's distinctive and monotonous phrases (in fact the company is called Baby Monotonous). She's married to Fletcher, who handcrafts beautiful furniture that only a few people ever buy, and step-mother to 17 year old Tanner, who wants to write screenplays and is certain that he'll be a huge success without putting in much effort, and Cody, a sweet, kind, and shy preteen who sees the good in everyone. Pandora's also the daughter of a 70s tv sitcom star named Travis Appaloosa with whom she has a very fraught relationship. She's happily settled in Iowa, far from the California of her self-obsessed father and the hip New York of her successful jazz musician older brother, Edison. But then a phone call comes from one of her revered big brother's best friends and Pandora finds herself inviting Edison to come to Iowa and stay with her family for the next two months, a decision that could cost her her marriage.

When Pandora picks Edison up at the airport, she is staggered by his sheer size, hardly recognizing him. He's gone from the attractive 163 pound man he's always been to an obese 386 pounds. His transformation is purely on the outside though and he remains the same narcissistic and unpleasant person he's always been to everyone but Pandora. Fletcher can barely stand his faux jive talking brother-in-law and over the tenure of the promised two months, he becomes even more controlling and prone to ultimatums than he was before Edison's advent in their home. The tangled and tense relationships between all of the main characters only accelerate when, after the agreed upon two months is up, Pandora decides that she has to somehow save her brother from himself, offering to coach him in more than 200 pounds of weight loss (and to lose her own extra padding in the process), to move out of her marital home with Fletcher and the kids straining her marriage, and to focus on healing Edison mentally, emotionally, and physically.

The characters in Big Brother are all terribly flawed and in many ways unlikable. They make horrendous choices and casually hurt each other over and over again. In choosing to have Pandora tell her own story, Shriver allows her to continually justify herself and the decisions she makes even if those decisions are predicated on wrong-thinking. And because it is Pandora who drives this character driven narrative, the conflicts between her responsibility to Edison within the parameters of their sibling relationship and her responsibility to Fletcher within their marriage loom large within the overarching theme of obesity. Shriver doesn't offer up easy explanations for the obesity epidemic. She does delve into what has driven Edison to gorge himself and balloon up to such a weight but acknowledges that each of the assumed "reasons" is in fact not wholly to blame.

The book is an uncomfortable one but there's so much to talk about contained in its pages: society's condemnation of obesity and the laying of fault on the person, the mining of the emotional reasons behind such eating and the toxicity of such a coping mechanism, sibling relationships versus spousal relationships and what we owe our biological and created families, the issue of tight control and addiction, competition--both healthy and otherwise, celebrity and entitlement, self-deceit, self-esteem as tied to a number on a scale, and so much more. Shriver has created characters with complicated relationships to each other and to the food they choose to eat or to shun. Through the character of Pandora, she ruminates on the philosophy of eating and the ways in which we as a society have perverted this basic animal instinct. And while some of these meanderingly philosophical portions started to lose my attention, she also clearly touched a nerve with me as I felt guilty and slightly ashamed of eating anything while reading it even though I typically read through at least two of my three meals daily.   My other quibble with the novel is the sudden and unexpected change of direction at the end of the novel.  Perhaps that revision offers a more realistic ending but it doesn't follow the narrative up to that point at all.  As such, it came off as a sleight of hand not befitting the thoughtful tale that preceded it.  And it was a thoughtful tale, one designed to make us examine our own assumptions about food and love and pride and the conflation of all of them.

For more information about Lionel Shriver and the book find her on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I meant to start this one a few weeks ago but I never happened. I do love novels with flawed characters and this sounds like my kind of story. Happy to skim your thoughts.

  2. I have many close family and friends who have struggled with obesity ... sounds like this would be a challenging read.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  3. As I said in my review, this is the only novel I've ever read that goes clear from one end to the other of what I call the "spectrum of food thoughts."
    You're right about the ending of the novel, but that didn't affect how thought-provoking I found it.

  4. Oh look, more books for me to keep an eye out for! Though, sometimes it winds up being good when one like this slips under my radar because I have a good suggestion for my IRL book club.

    Maycee Greene (San Antonio Local SEO)


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