Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Publisher: Harper (2013). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover. 384 pages. ISBN: 9780061458576.
“But what or rather who, is the skinny? By conceit, the rail-thin are harsh, joyless, and critical. They suffer from the same chronic dissatisfaction as average-size people, but on top of applying a ruthless ruler to themselves they are reliably dissatisfied with you. Their proclivity for self-control inexorably bleeds into controlling everyone else as well. . .Scrawnies are superior, haughty, and elitist.
Lastly, the well and truly fat. I think we long ago put to rest their reputation for jollity. Misery, more like it. Melancholy, perhaps. Helplessness. Self-indulgence and self-deceit. Defensiveness. Resignation to the present; fatalism about the future.”
Lionel Shriver expresses so many thoughts about obesity epidemic, how we indulge, how food is a treat, a central focus for holidays, outings, dates, meetings etc. [“Gathering were tagged by whatever you might put in your mouth; let’s have coffee, get together for a drink, do dinner some night.”] Also how people look at obese people and can rarely see beyond the body to the personality. When Pandora picks up her brother at the airport, the once handsome and assured Edison now weighs nearly 400 pounds. She’s understandably shocked and saddened at the sight. He’s unhealthy and nearly unrecognizable. Quickly she decides that she’ll help her brother lose the weight with an extreme weight loss plan. They move into an apartment together at her husband’s utter disapproval. Mainly because she says she’s giving the diet a year and needs to live with Edison in order for it to work as he needs her full encouragement and support.
Long in the shadows of her celebrity father [he starred on a sitcom in the 80s] and her high-school dropout jazz musician brother Edison, 40-year-old Pandora became an extremely successful female entrepreneur. After folding her catering business after 11 years, she started this strange boutique company that manufactures one-of-a-kind dolls called “Baby Monotonous”– pick a doll and have a voice installed which mimics a friend or loved one. Her husband works from home on his unpopular handcrafted furniture.
Not only does her husband dislike Edison but there’s perhaps jealousy in the brother-sister relationship vs. the husband-wife. Stepdaughter Cody likes Edison but stepson Tanner isn’t that keen. Tanner however isn’t sure he wants to graduate from high school and before Edison arrived on the scene he hadn’t planned to go to college even though Pandora saved money for him to go. [“Though already a month into his senior year of high school, he had yet to evince the slightest interest in the college education for which I was expressly saving the proceeds from my business. He wanted to write, but he didn’t like to read. That summer the boy had announced that he’d decided to become a screenwriter as if doing Ridley Scott a personal favor.”]
Pandora’s a striking character. Independent. Unique. Goals but not too driven. Just right and completely a woman to whom I could relate. Chose not to have children. Didn’t get married until after 35. Not clinging to men surrounding her. No awkward begging for her husband to give her second chances. She’s successful and the primary money source. Equally riveting is Edison in his disgustingness. He’s so over the top with his narcissistic attitude. He needs to be the center. He needs the attention. He needs it all but he left home at 17 with no plan and honestly what kind of outcome did he expect without an education or some sort of training.
Of course her brother gets comfortable living with and relying on her to maintain his weight loss. He also starts getting more confident in his weight loss despite the unhealthy diet. He’s been a drug addict and now Pandora worries what will happen when this diet ends. Will he just gain all the weight back? Can Edison maintain the weight loss without Pandora in his life? Shriver thinks about every possibility and every angle. I didn’t want this to end. Dazzling writing, vocabulary and character creation up until the ending. Why that disappointing ending?
RATING: ****/5 [only because I didn’t like the ending]
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the Harper Collins.