“Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver review–spoilers.

I didn’t-and still don’t-intend to turn this blog into a blog in which I review the books I read and the movies I watch, but because this is my blog, I feel the need to discuss certain things that have an impression on me. Earlier in the week it was the movie Boyhood, so today we’re going to talk about a book I read.

And how it really, really, really irritated me.

Big Brother is the first book I’ve read by Lionel Shriver, despite owning and staring frequently at my copy of We Need to Talk About Kevin that I got at a used book sale after watching and enjoying the movie. Big Brother is her most recent novel, published in 2013, and it chronicles the issues behind siblings, marriage, and personal responsibility to your family, all wrapped up in a neat little package of discussion about obesity and society.

Let me start out by saying that I really wanted to like this book. I picked it up at the bookstore, read the back and was intrigued, intrigued enough to pay $16 for it, at least. Our main character, Pandora, is living in Iowa with her husband and two step-children, where she’s created a life separate from the rest of her family-her former TV-star father who still lives in his glory days, her much younger half sister, and even her older brother, Edison, an accomplished jazz musician living in NYC. She’s started a successful business and is happy, until she gets a call that her older brother isn’t doing very well and needs a place to crash for a while. Against her husband’s wishes, she invites Edison to stay with her family and is shocked when she picks him up at the airport to find out that he’s gained 200 pounds since she lost saw him and she has to struggle with where to draw the line of sibling responsibility.

Alright, let’s throw up a SPOILER ALERT from here on out. If you’ve somehow stumbled upon this blog entry via Google or Goodreads or something, let me just say that as of right now, I am going to spoil the ending of this book. And I don’t give a shit. 

So as I said, I wanted so bad to like this book. The idea and the themes were intriguing. How far should a sister go to protect her brother, when the person she’s protecting him from is himself? It talked about the lines between a husband and wife and a sister and brother, and which relationship should be protected first, and at what cost. It also explored the personal implications of obesity along with “societal” implications, and I’ll get to that one in a minute. It was well written, albeit with what I felt was the slight over usage of words that made the overall message hard to get across at times. With that being said, I have a really high reading level and I felt like anyone with much lower of a reading level would have a hard time at points. BUT, overall it was very well written and not a difficult read, in the sense that it didn’t take too much effort for me to keep turning the page.

Edison moves in with Pandora and her family and alienates everyone. He makes extravagant, calorie-laden breakfasts for her mostly health conscious family, fills her teenage step-son’s head with grand fantasies of quitting high school and becoming a Somebody in the world of TV. He breaks priceless, fancy furniture that her husband has toiled over and specifically asked him not to sit in. Eventually, her husband issues Pandora an ultimatum-it’s him or her brother, and as she prepares to pack Edison off on a plane back to NYC, she has a change of heart and decides to offer Edison a deal. She’ll get an apartment for the two of them, pay for everything, on the condition that he goes on a radical liquid diet and loses 223 pounds until he’s back at his optimum weight of 163.

So first let me say that I do think this book did a good job of discussing the unfair disadvantages people with weight problems face. Throughout the novel we see the many ways that Edison faces public scrutiny because of his size, and our main character talks extensively about how she feels that her body is simply something to present to the world, for people to judge without a care given to what she’s really like.

“The fact that my clothing has been visually available to other people i do not find upsetting. The body is another matter. It is mine; I have found it useful; but it is an avatar.
Given that most people presumably contend with just this rattling disconnect between who they are to themselves and what they are to others, it’s perplexing why we’re still roundly obsessed with appearance. Having verified on our own accounts the feeble link between the ‘who’ and the ‘what’, you’d think that from the age of three we’d have learned to look straight through the avatar as we do through a pane of glass. On the other hand, I sometimes suspected that my female employees who were lavishing fifty dollars per week from their modest salaries on makeup had mastered a secret that eluded me most of the time and only intruded when I looked at snapshots: like it or not, you are a ‘what’ to other people.” –Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

However, the very idea that Pandora was so obsessed with her brother’s size and proving a point to her husband that her brother wasn’t a grotesque pig that she felt the need to move into a separate apartment and go on an all-liquid diet with him irked me. She puts herself and Edison on a liquid diet of 550 or so calories every day for over six months which sounds more than moderately dangerous to me. Regardless, she spends the time helping him lose the weight, and he loses it in a year, which also sounds more than moderately dangerous, but whatever. They have a party to celebrate his losing the weight, and at the party Pandora and her husband reconcile, despite his having asked her for a divorce over the entire Edison debacle. Edison walks in on them reuniting, then goes into the living room and stuffs his face with cake, saying it’s pointless because she’s ditching him to move back in with her family and won’t be around to boss him around anymore. Then Pandora details how he gains back every last pound he lost…then she details how this is what she wished had happened. She wished that she’d taken on the challenge of helping Edison lose weight, but she thought it wasn’t her issue and she chose her family over something that she thought wasn’t her problem.

Yeah, you read that right. Over half of the book, in which she helps her brother lose a shit ton of weight and which is basically the entire meat of the novel, was a fantasy. Are you fucking kidding me? Oh, and by the way, Edison died. WHAT THE FUCK? I was so irritated I threw the book.

I’ve been irritated for two days. I’m not going to say it was a total waste, but I’ll definitely never read it again and I do not recommend it. So in conclusion, decent lessons and issues, crappy payoff. If you stuck through this entire post, bless you. This was hella long.

“So when I said I’d miss him, I meant I would miss what we had not experienced, and I don’t know what that’s called: nostalgia for what didn’t happen.”–Big Brother by Lionel Shriver


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