Review: Big Brother; Lionel Shriver

 “He makes me sad.” “Me too… very, very sad.” (4 stars)

Source- borrowed from a friend

Published by Borough Press, January 2014

The paperback edition is 404 pages 

I have been looking forward to reading this book for ages. I’ve been slightly miffed at having to wait around for the paperback version to hit the shelves in the UK (which it did at the end of last week), but I simply refused to pay the disgusting price that the hardback edition of this novel retailed at. No matter how good a writer Lionel Shriver may be, in excess of £15.00 for one book is too steep, even for a bookworm like me. The Kindle price was almost as extortionate, which is staggering. 

Anyway, rant over. Happily, I borrowed this book from a friend so it doesn’t even impinge on my new year’s resolution of not buying any books for a while. Woo hoo. I was wondering how I’d get around that, given I knew the publication of this book was on the cards…! 

Iowa businesswoman Pandora thinks she is being kind when she offers to have her older brother come and stay with her family for a few weeks. Forty-six-year-old Edison is somewhat down on his luck- a jazz pianist in New York he seems to have burned bridges with his friends and needs a place to stay for a while. 

The man that Pandora encounters at the airport is not the brother than she remembers. Morbidly obese and pushing close to 400lb’s, Edison won’t acknowledge that he has any kind of problem. At first Pandora and her family tiptoe around the obvious, but when Pandora’s husband issues an ultimatum: her brother or him, Pandora must reason whether it is really worth risking everything in helping someone who refuses to be helped… 

What I love most about Shriver’s writing is her ability to acutely observe humanity. She can be shrewd, she can be witty, she can also be blunt, yet she always manages to give her characters their own distinctive personalities- like them or loathe them. In this case, I didn’t like Edison one iota, I didn’t even particularly feel sorry for him after feeling some pity towards the start of the story. He came across as pretentious, arrogant and as a man who refused to face up to home truths. Everything was continually about him. Pandora I had mixed feelings about- rather like her own conflicting emotions towards her brother I suppose. You can understand a sister wanting to help her brother, but at what cost? Aside from this being a book about weight and identity, it was also very much a story about relationships and the bonds between family. 

The story from the outset was imbued with a clever sense of awkwardness- almost cringe worthy in places. It did feel realistic in how Edison and his appearance were treated; on the one hand we have perfect strangers insulting his size and then on the other we have his family who are uncertain as to how to address the issue. The etiquette and behaviour were beautifully crafted as Edison’s bulk-literally-became the elephant in the room. 

As someone a few pounds overweight myself- though thankfully nowhere near as overweight as Edison- and having lost almost two stone recently (go me! I suppose I was more in Pandora’s league of being “overweight”), I completely empathised with some of the mortifying situations that he was placed in, though they left me feeling frustrated as it was all self-inflicted and he took everything to the extreme. It comes to the point where enough is enough and if you don’t like yourself, you need to get off your backside and do something about it. Change your way of thinking. Ask for help. Unfortunately as many people will appreciate, it isn’t always that easy and Edison’s gluttonous eating habits and his addictions to food were a completely vicious circle that he couldn’t seem to get past, particularly in a society where there is so much emphasis on food, dieting and image. He also had too much pride to ask for help in tackling his problems, kidding himself that his weight didn’t bother him, which will resonate with a lot of people. 

There were indeed some aspects about this book that I didn’t particularly enjoy; for one thing it took quite a while to get into its stride. For at least half of the book it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. That is often the case with character-driven novels, but I did find it a tad frustrating here- I felt like far too much time was spent listening to Pandora’s self-indulgent diatribe and her narcissistic musings and watching her pandering to her selfish husband.  Edison’s ‘jazz-speak’ grated on me in a way that no other characters voice has in literature for quite some time. I mean, I literally wanted to reach into the book and punch him. Also, the constant droning on about Pandora and Edison’s father’s TV show (their father was a famous actor) was dull beyond belief and seemed to serve very little purpose in the plot, other than showing the different parallels between their own childhood and that of a fictionalised one in a TV sitcom. 

The ending is something that other reviewers have talked about, too. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone of course, but initially it did leave me feeling slightly cheated- for oh, about five minutes. With hindsight however, I changed my mind: it was actually a fitting ending given the rest of the novel and how I’d came to feel about the characters themselves. It was realistic and I feel that Shriver should be commended for it.  This book is loosely based on her own family situation and I think it is admirable that she has laid so much of it bare.

Though perhaps not as enthralling or admittedly memorable as the spectacularly complex (albeit disturbing) We Need To Talk About Kevin, Big Brother was certainly a fascinating, topical read that held my attention throughout. Insightful, brave and not afraid to tackle a somewhat delicate subject matter, it is a novel I know I will be recommending in future. 

For Christmas I also received a copy of So Much For That, by this author, which suffice to say I now cannot wait to read. For thought-provoking fiction with memorable characters and situations, Shriver really is one of the leaders of the pack.

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