Review: Big Brother

Big Brother

Big Brother
By Lionel Shriver
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780061458576, June 2013, 373pp.)

The Short of It:

While reading, I couldn’t help but think of an animal thrown upon the cutting board and flayed open for all to see. Raw, viscerally charged and unflinching in its delivery.

The Rest of It:

As the stepmother to two teens, Pandora walks a fine line between happiness and acceptance. Constantly aware that she is not their “real mother” she does what she can to maintain her dignity while asserting herself in a non-judgmental way. Difficult to do since her husband Fletcher, self-prescribed health-nut and maker of custom furniture is as uptight as they come. It helps that Pandora is quite successful. Her novelty doll business has taken off which gives her a sense of independence, even though Fletcher doesn’t really see the point to any of it. To him, the only thing of importance is treating your body like a temple. Constant exercise and a strict diet is the answer to whatever ails you. At least, it is in his eyes.

Enter Edison. Edison is Pandora’s brother. A jazz musician who’s been living with a friend for the past year. Pandora’s gotten word that Edison needs a place to stay before a big jazz tour so she offers up her place even though she knows it will drive Fletcher batty to have another body in the house. She’s been tipped off that things aren’t going all that well for Edison, but when she picks him up from the airport she realizes she’s grossly underestimated the situation at hand. Edison, once a sexy, virile guy weighs in at well over 380 lbs.

What happens next is unthinkable and I fought to accept it the entire time I was reading but Pandora in essence, chooses Edison over her marriage and embarks on a liquid diet to end all diets, makes a home for Edison and becomes his roommate and partner in weight loss.

What?

You heard right and this is not a spoiler in any way, as it’s right on the inside flap of the book but it surprised me. Surprised me in a way that felt unrealistic. Yes, yes, there’s the whole blood is thicker than water thing but Pandora’s decision to leave her home not only affects her marriage, but the relationship she has with the kids. I found myself asking the obvious question. Could I ever do such a thing myself? Not sure. But to Pandora, the situation is a matter of life or death because in her eyes, Edison is clearly on a path to destruction. His eating is out of control in the way that a drug addict can’t live without his next hit. The addiction is front and center and a constant reminder of how fragile and precarious the situation is.

It’s frustrating to read about. The push/pull of addiction wears you down, and even as an outsider looking in, you find yourself exhausted. The effort taken to “fix” it is admirable, but at the same time, in the back of your mind you feel this sense of indescribable doom. But Pandora is not likable, nor is Edison or Fletcher which makes the dynamic that much more challenging. Who do you root for in a story like this? That is the question I asked myself up until the very last pages.

In the characteristic Shriver way, she delivers a one-two punch that forces you to consider other points of view. The writing is fluid but every word is carefully considered, or at least it seems so. She has a very deliberate way of writing which takes a little bit of getting used to but it’s a style I’ve come to appreciate over time. When I turned the last page, I sat there contemplating the lives of these characters  and wishing it had gone a different way, but that’s life and Shriver captures it beautifully along with all of its imperfections.

Big Brother is not a happy story. It won’t make you warm and fuzzy inside and I would be hard-pressed to call it a beach read (far from it!) but it’s a book to be read and appreciated for the questions that it raises.

Source: Sent to me by the publisher via Edelweiss
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

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27 Responses

  1. Love love love your take on this!

    • Have you read this one? It doesn’t seem like your kind of book even though it’s about as dysfunctional as you can get.

  2. I’ve yet to read anything by her but from what I gather she seems a bit like Piccoult with her taking on these big huge hairy topics and turning them all sorts of ways. I just haven’t known if I’ve been in the mood for that.

    • I know what you mean, Trish. I appreciate Shriver’s work but I don’t love her books. Which may or may not illustrate what I am trying to say. I need coffee! I’ve successfully read two of her books, this one and We Need to Talk About Kevin but there were three others that were DNF’s for me.

  3. As disturbing as I found this novel, it is classic Shriver. She always pushes the buttons. Obesity is something everyone is aware of, some more than others. Hot button. Great review.

    • I think I wanted a little more of the struggle but given the ending and knowing what I know, I can see why it was sort of skimmed over.

  4. I never did start this although I meant too. I guess I’d have to consider how we’ll my relationship/marriage was working out but if she needed a reason to leave in her mind, perhaps this was a good one in her eyes?

    Anxious to try it!

    • Her reasons for leaving aren’t really explored, which is explained later but it was weird to have have the reasons up front.

  5. ‘Classic characteristic Shriver’ – not sure I like it but I get it. I admire her writing skills but her books are so hard to put in the ‘ENJOY’ category?

    • Very true. You don’t read her books for enjoyment. I have to say though, I am getting a bit tired of the twisty stuff at the end. I hear that that is a typical thing with her. If it always happens, I think it would get old after awhile.

  6. It is interesting that she chose her brother over her marriage – I wonder if there was some guilt from her childhood. I’m anxious to read this because it sounds like a book that will make me squirm

    • It made me squirm a little because of their actions. I also could not stand any of the characters but it was a good, thought-provoking read.

  7. I had a lot of issues with the plot (which you mentioned above) but the end cleared some of them up. Not a fun read but a good one.

  8. For me, this was such a challenging read. Not that that’s a bad thing, but, like you said, definitely not a beach read. I’m glad to have read it, though, and it’s stayed with me ever since. The best books tend to do that!

    • I found it to be quite challenging too. Not hard, but challenging. I felt as if I had to know more, but it wasn’t a page turner so I had to work at getting it read. The last few pages were the easiest to read, but the hardest to digest.

  9. I SO need to catch up and read this one. I wonder if I can convince my book club to pick it up so I have an excuse to squeeze it in :)

    • It would be a great book to discuss but if your club will hate you forever for choosing it then you might want to go with something else. The ending is typical Shriver so the group might get angry! LOL. I know mine, would.

  10. Great review! I liked So Much for That better and thought it was a better book over all, but I am still thinking about Big Brother a couple of weeks after finishing it!

  11. I guess I can understand what Pandora did, though I may not do something like that. I haven’t read a Shriver book yet – she seems to have a good chunk under her belt.

  12. I’ve been wanting to read We Need to Talk about Kevin for a while…maybe I should start there.

    • Kevin is a powerful book. You’ll need time to recover from it. Visit my blog: Book Chatter

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  13. I haven’t read anything by this author, but people seem to really like them

  14. I am going to skip your review for now, because I love Shriver sardonic take in life and wouldn’t want to spoil it for the world! Glad you like it. :)

  15. That is certainly the type of book she writes. Sounds interesting and one I might read yet this year!

  16. This sounds like a tough one. I’m sort of caught in between if I want to read it or not. It sounds like there’s no character that is really likable, and maybe that makes it a bit of a slug. I heard Shriver talking on NPR’s Diane Rehm show and it was an interesting interview … and this story is about her own real brother who died before she could help him or have him move in. Interestingly I became a fan of Shriver’s after reading her first novel in the 1980s called The Female of the Species (which I recall as being very good) but I haven’t read any of her novels since then. She’s became more of an activist writer since then. … which is okay. It’s just a matter of time before I read her again

  17. […] 25. Benediction by Kent Haruf 26. Joyland by Stephen King 27. Life Itself by Roger Ebert 28. Big Brother by Lionel Shriver 29. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut 30. The Silent Wife by A.S.A. […]

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