Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver is synonymous with smart writing and controversial issues. She first came to my attention in, of all places, an airport bookstore where I picked up a copy of We Need To Talk About Kevin – a stunning bookShe handles difficult subject matter with an unflinching assurance and I knew I would be on the look out for more of her books.

Big Brother centers around obesity, and examines societal issues of fat through how relationships are affected, and what responsibility is required of family when one of its members is morbidly obese. How much can, and should, you sacrifice to help someone who may or may not even want to be helped? Fat has quickly become a hot, hot issue; not only in terms of advertising, eating disorders, health issues and how society views obesity but also in terms of legislation. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in the news for attempting to ban large size soft drinks, and for several years in New York portion sizes and calorie counts have been included in fast food menus. In her title, Shriver ominously hints at many forms of “Big Brother”, while cloaking her cautionary tale in the story of Pandora Halfdanarson and Edison Appaloosa, children of former second tier sitcom star, who are strongly bonded over ridiculing episodes of their father’s old shows and the trauma of being famous by association rather than achievement.

The novel is told from Pandora’s first person perspective, and we learn that she  is married to Fletcher, a high end furniture maker whose dismal sales have left him slightly resentful of his wife’s success. Though Pandora has opted out of motherhood in the traditional sense, she is happy to be stepmother to his children, whom he has separated from their drug addicted mother. Fletcher and Pandora’s marriage is clearly strained, partially due the success of her burgeoning business called Baby Monotony, and his own newly developed aversion to the elaborate meals Pandora prepared in their courtship and early marriage. Fletcher has crossed the line between health nut and ascetic. Pandora clearly welcomes the distraction her brother, who she has heard from a friend is down on his luck, will bring. What she doesn’t bargain for is a 200+ pounds overweight and out of work brother who threatens to destroy all that she has built. Still, she stands in solidarity with Edison and moves out from her husband and children in order to help him lose the weight that will surely kill him.

Big Brother is written with Shriver’s characteristic acerbic wit and is filled with insightful commentary on familial and sibling bonds – how the dynamics formed in childhood can threaten the responsibilities and loyalties of marriage. While Big Brother is an absorbing read, it’s also one that I have deeply mixed feelings about. Shriver specializes in thoughtful books about characters you don’t necessarily like, which is fine in and of itself. My main problem with Pandora is that she was interchangeable with Shriver’s other main characters – smart, cold, conflicted about motherhood, and manipulative of her audience. She could have been any of the achieving, critical protagonists before encountered in Shriver, and that makes Big Brother feel longer than it would have otherwise. Though on a different subject matter,  the cadence and construction of Pandora’s rants, diatribes, circuitous arguments and justifications were extremely familiar.

Shriver also has a way of playing with readers in a major way, particularly with her endings. You’ll either be angry, disbelieving, inspired  or gradually resigned to the way she chooses to bring closure to her novels. Pandora wraps up her story in a way that isn’t entirely satisfactory, but not unexpected if you’ve read any of Shriver’s previous novels. The groundwork is laid for the ending but it has a “fool me once, shame on you…” type feeling. We Need To Talk About Kevin sparked much discussion on whether it’s ending was a gimmick (and whether or not it was a successful one), and Big Brother certainly comes up the the line and kisses it. I would have been more upset with it had I not already come to think of Shriver’s works more as astute observations of social issues masquerading as novels. Big Brother seemed less plausible as a novel than some of her other work. It felt like reading an “issues” book, a screed on obesity.

Nevertheless Big Brother is a compelling, thought provoking read, and it characters are well drawn, if annoying. Many theories and perspectives compete for the readers attention –  to be agreed with and disavowed, to be ashamed of and accepted, sometimes within the same paragraph. Never for the faint of heart, Shriver’s latest effort is both haunting and sad. Though I have many reservations, it’s hard not to recommend Big Brother for consideration especially for those looking for something of relevance and worthy of discussion.

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