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.
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
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