Big Brother

Lionel Shriver

Big Brother
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Big Brother

Lionel Shriver

Big Brother is a striking novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity from Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed author the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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.

Review

Pandora is waiting at the airport for her older brother, Edison, when she averts her eyes from a morbidly obese man being wheeled into baggage claim by two flight attendants: ‘Looking at that man was like falling into a hole, and I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.’

Pandora has not seen Edison for four years, and she is curious why he needs a place to stay for a month. When the man in the wheelchair speaks to her, the voice is familiar, but not so his size. Driving him home to her husband, Fletcher, and two stepchildren, Pandora can only hope they keep their reactions in check too.

Lionel Shriver (the Orange Prize-winning author of We Need to Talk About Kevin) is not afraid of tackling troubling contemporary themes in her fiction. She raises important issues such as what food and eating means to us, and how our self concept is linked to what we see in the mirror. As Pandora wonders about Edison, ‘Did he eat because he was depressed, or was he depressed because of his size?’

Fletcher and the children are disconcerted by Edison’s presence, and Pandora quickly finds herself trapped between brother and husband. Fletcher is disgusted by Edison, and in return Edison is antagonistic towards him. Finally, Fletcher gives Pandora the ultimatum that if Edison remains in the house five seconds after he is meant to leave, their marriage is over. And so, Pandora needs to make a choice – save her brother or save her marriage?

At times the novel is an uncomfortable read, but this is a testimony to the quality of the writing and the compelling story. As much as it explores issues around food and obesity, it is also a fine examination of sibling relationships, especially those developed within dysfunctional families.


Annie Condon is the convenor of a Readings’ Contemporary Book Club.

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