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Big Brother: A Novel

Big Brother: A Novel

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Big Brother: A Novel

4/5 (29 évaluations)
389 pages
6 heures
Jan 1, 2000


Big Brother is a striking novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity from Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed author the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin.
For Pandora, cooking is a form of love. Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed high-end cabinetmaker, now spurns the “toxic” dishes that he’d savored through their courtship, and spends hours each day to manic cycling. Then, when Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at the airport, she doesn’t recognize him. In the years since they’ve seen one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? After Edison has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: It’s him or me.

Rich with Shriver’s distinctive wit and ferocious energy, Big Brother is about fat: an issue both social and excruciatingly personal. It asks just how much sacrifice we'll make to save single members of our families, and whether it's ever possible to save loved ones from themselves.

Jan 1, 2000

À propos de l'auteur

Lionel Shriver's fiction includes The Mandibles; Property; the National Book Award finalist So Much for That; the New York Times bestseller The Post-Birthday World; and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted for a 2010 film starring Tilda Swinton. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She’s a regular columnist for the Spectator in Britain and Harper’s Magazine in the US. She lives in London and Brooklyn, New York.

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Big Brother - Lionel Shriver


I: Up

chapter one

I have to wonder whether any of the true highlights of my fortysome years have had to do with food. I don’t mean celebratory dinners, good fellowship; I mean salivation, mastication, and peristalsis. Oddly, for something I do every day, I can’t remember many meals in detail, while it is far easier for me to call up favorite movies, faithful friendships, graduations. It follows, then, that film, affinity, and education are more important to me than stuffing my face. Well done, me, you say. But were I honestly to total the time I have lavished on menu planning, grocery shopping, prep and cooking, table setting, and kitchen cleanup for meal upon meal, food, one way or another, has dwarfed my fondness for Places in the Heart to an incidental footnote; ditto my fondness for any human being, even those whom I profess to love. I have spent less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch. Throw in the time I have also spent ruing indulgence in lemon meringue pies, vowing to skip breakfast tomorrow, and opening the refrigerator/stopping myself from dispatching the leftover pumpkin custard/then shutting it firmly again, and I seem to have concerned myself with little else but food.

So why, if, by inference, eating has been so embarrassingly central for me, can I not remember an eidetic sequence of stellar meals?

Like most people, I recall childhood favorites most vividly, and like most kids I liked plain things: toast, baking-powder biscuits, saltines. My palate broadened in adulthood, but my character did not. I am white rice. I have always existed to set off more exciting fare. I was a foil as a girl. I am a foil now.

I doubt this mitigates my discomfiture much, but I have some small excuse for having overemphasized the mechanical matter of sustenance. For eleven years, I ran a catering business. You would think, then, that I could at least recall individual victories at Breadbasket, Inc. Well, not exactly. Aside from academics at the university, who are more adventurous, Iowans are conservative eaters, and I can certainly summon a monotonous assembly line of carrot cake, lasagna, and sour-cream cornbread. But the only dishes that I recollect in high relief are the disasters—the Indian rosewater pudding thickened with rice flour that turned into a stringy, viscous vat suitable for affixing wallpaper. The rest—the salmon steaks rolled around somethingorother, the stir-fries of thisandthat with an accent of whathaveyou—it’s all a blur.

Patience; I am rounding on something. I propose: food is by nature elusive. More concept than substance, food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself, which is why diet can exert the sway of religion or political zealotry. Not irresistible tastiness but the very failure of food to reward is what drives us to eat more of it. The most sumptuous experience of ingestion is in-between: remembering the last bite and looking forward to the next one. The actual eating part almost doesn’t happen. This near-total inability to deliver is what makes the pleasures of the table so tantalizing, and also so dangerous.

Petty? I’m not so sure. We are animals; far more than the ancillary matter of sex, the drive to eat motivates nearly all of human endeavor. Having conspicuously triumphed in the competition for resources, the fleshiest among us are therefore towering biological success stories. But ask any herd of overpopulating deer: nature punishes success. Our instinctive saving for a rainy day, our burying of acorns in the safest and most private of hiding places for the long winter, however prudent in its way, however expressive of Darwinian guile, is killing my country. That is why I cast doubt on whether the pantry, as a subject, is paltry. True, I sometimes wonder just how much I care about my country. But I care about my brother.

Any story about a sibling goes far back indeed, but for our purposes the chapter of my brother’s life that most deserves scrutiny began, aptly, at lunch. It must have been a weekend, since I hadn’t already left for my manufacturing headquarters.

As usual in that era, my husband Fletcher had come upstairs on the early side. He’d been getting up at five a.m., so by noon he was famished. A self-employed cabinetmaker who crafted lovely but unaffordable one-of-a-kind furniture, he commuted all the way to our basement, and could arise whenever he liked. The crack-of-dawn nonsense was for show. Fletcher liked the implied rigor, the façade of yet more hardness, fierceness, discipline, and self-denial.

I found the up-and-at-’em maddening. Back then, I hadn’t the wisdom to welcome discord on such a minor scale, since Fletcher’s alarm-clock setting would soon be the least of our problems. But that’s true of all before pictures, which appear serene only in retrospect. At the time, my irritation at the self-righteousness with which he swept from bed was real enough. The man went to sleep at nine p.m. He got eight hours of shut-eye like a normal person. Where was the self-denial?

As with so many of my husband’s bullying eccentricities, I refused to get with the program and had begun to sleep in. I was my own boss, too, and I detested early mornings. Queasy first light recalled weak filtered coffee scalded on a hot plate. Turning in at nine would have made me feel like a child, shuttled to my room while the grown-ups had fun. Only the folks having fun, all too much of it, would have been Tanner and Cody, teenagers not about to adopt their father’s faux farming hours.

Thus, having just cleared off my own toast and coffee dishes, I wasn’t hungry for lunch—although, following the phone call of an hour earlier, my appetite had gone off for other reasons. I can’t remember what we were eating, but it was probably brown rice and broccoli. With a few uninteresting variations, in those days it was always brown rice and broccoli.

At first, we didn’t talk. When we’d met seven years before, our comfort with mutual silence had been captivating. One of the things that had once put me off about marriage was the prospect of ceaseless chat. Fletcher felt the same way, although his silence had a different texture than mine: thicker, more concentrated—churning and opaque. This gave his quiet a richness, which dovetailed nicely with my cooler, smoother calm. My silence made a whimsical humming sound, even if I didn’t actually hum; in culinary terms, it resembled a light cold soup. Darker and more brooding, Fletcher’s was more of a red wine sauce. He wrestled with problems, while I simply solved them. Solitary creatures, we never contrived conversation for the sake of it. We were well suited.

Yet this midday, the hush was of dread and delay. Its texture was that of sludge, like my disastrous rosewater pudding. I rehearsed my introductory sentence several times before announcing aloud, Slack Muncie called this morning.

Who’s Mack Muncie? asked Fletcher distractedly.

Slack. A saxophonist. From New York. I’ve met him several times. Well regarded, I think—but like most of that crowd, has trouble making ends meet. Obliged to accept wedding and restaurant gigs, where everyone talks over the music. All of this qualified as the very making conversation I claimed to avoid.

Fletcher looked up warily. How do you know him?

He’s one of Edison’s oldest friends. A real stalwart.

In that case, said Fletcher, he must be very patient.

Edison’s been staying with him.

I thought your brother had an apartment. Over his jazz club. Fletcher imbued his jazz club with skepticism. He didn’t believe Edison ever ran his own jazz club.

Not anymore. Slack didn’t want to get into it, but there’s some—story.

"Oh, there’s sure to be a story. It just won’t be true."

Edison exaggerates sometimes. That’s not the same as being a liar.

Right. And the color ‘pearl’ isn’t the same as ‘ivory.’

With Edison, I said, "you have to learn how to translate."

"So he’s mooching off friends. How’s this for translation: your brother’s homeless. Fletcher habitually called Edison your brother. To my ear that decoded, your problem."

Sort of, I said.

And broke.

Edison has been through thin patches before. Between tours.

So because of some mysterious, complicated story—like not paying the rent—you brother has lost his apartment, and now he’s couch surfing.

Yes, I said, squirming. Although he seems to be running out of couches.

"Why did this Slack person call, and not your brother himself?"

Well, I think Slack has been incredibly generous, though his apartment is small. A one-bedroom, where he also has to practice.

Honey. Spit it out. Say whatever it is that you don’t want to tell me.

I intently chased a floret, too undercooked to fork. He said there isn’t enough room. For the two of them. Most of their other colleagues are already doubled up, or married with kids, and—Edison doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

"Anywhere else but where?"

We have a guest room now, I pleaded. "Nobody ever uses it, besides Solstice every two years. And, you know—he’s my brother."

A contained man, Fletcher seldom looked visibly irked. You say that like playing a trump.

It means something.

Something but not everything. Why couldn’t he stay with Travis? Or Solstice?

My father is impossible and over seventy. By the time my sister was born, Edison was nearly out of the house. He and Solstice barely know each other.

You have other responsibilities. To Tanner, to Cody, to me. Even—a loaded pause—to Baby Moronic. You can’t make a decision like this by fiat.

Slack sounded at his wit’s end. I had to say something.

What you had to say, said Fletcher levelly, was, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to ask my husband.’

Maybe I knew what you’d say.

And what was that?

I smiled, a little. Something like, ‘Over my dead body.’

He smiled, a little. Got that right.

I realize it didn’t go that well. The last visit.

No. It didn’t.

You seemed to get on the wrong side of each other.

There was no ‘seeming.’ We did.

If it were just anybody, I wouldn’t ask. But it isn’t. It would mean so much to me if you tried a little harder.

Got nothing to do with trying. You like someone, or you don’t. If you’re ‘trying,’ you don’t.

You can give folks a break. You do that with other people. I took a moment to reflect that in Fletcher’s case this wasn’t always true. He could be harsh.

Are you telling me that throughout this negotiation you never talked to your brother directly? So his friend is trying to offload the guy behind his back.

Maybe Edison’s embarrassed. He wouldn’t like asking favors of his little sister.

Little sister! You’re forty years old.

An only child, Fletcher didn’t understand about siblings—how set that differential is. "Sweetheart, I’ll still be Edison’s little sister when I’m ninety-five."

Fletcher soaked the rice pan in the sink. You’ve got some money now, right? Though I’m never too clear on how much. (No, he wouldn’t have been clear. I was secretive.) So send him a check. Enough for a deposit on some dump and a couple of months’ rent. Problem solved.

Buy him off. Bribe him to stay away from us.

Well, he wouldn’t have much of a life here. You can’t say Iowa has a ‘jazz scene.’

There are venues in Iowa City.

Pass-the-hat gigs for a handful of cheapo students aren’t going to suit Mr. Important International Jazz Pianist.

But according to Slack, Edison isn’t—‘in the best form.’ He says Edison needs—‘someone to take care of him.’ He thinks my brother’s confidence has taken a knock.

Best news I’ve heard all day.

My business is doing well, I said quietly. That should be good for something. For being generous. The way I’ve been generous with you, I almost added, and with kids who are now my children too, but I didn’t want to rub it in.

But you’re also volunteering the rest of this family’s generosity.

I realize that.

Fletcher leaned on either side of the sink. I’m sorry if I seem unfeeling. Whether or not the guy gets on my nerves, he’s your brother, and you must find it upsetting, his being down on his luck.

Yes, very, I said gratefully. He’s always been the hot shot. Being strapped, straining his friends’ hospitality—it feels wrong. Like the universe has turned on its head. I wasn’t about to tell Fletcher, but Edison and Slack must have fallen out, since the saxophonist’s urgency had been laced with what I could only call, well—disgust.

But even if we did decide to take him in, said Fletcher, "and we haven’t—the visit couldn’t be open-ended."

It can’t be conditional, either. If I was going to think that way, and I preferred not to, I had amassed, as of the previous couple of years, most of the power in our household. I disliked having power, and in ordinary circumstances rather hoped that if I never exercised this baffling clout it would go away. For once, however, the novel agency was useful. Saying, ‘only for three days,’ I said, or ‘only for a week.’ That doesn’t sound gracious, but as if we can only stand his company for a limited period of time.

Isn’t that the truth? Fletcher said curtly, leaving the dishes to me. I’m going for a ride.

Of course he was going for a ride. He rode his bicycle for hours almost every day—or one of his bicycles, since he had four, competing with unsold coffee tables for limited space in a basement that had looked so cavernous when we moved in. Neither of us ever mentioned it, but I’d bought him those bikes. Technically, we pooled our resources. But when one party contributes the contents of an eyedropper and the other Lake Michigan, pooling doesn’t seem the right word, quite.

Ever since my husband had started cycling obsessively, I wouldn’t go near my own ten-speed clunker, by then gathering dust with deflated tires. The neglect was of my choosing, but didn’t feel that way. It was as if he’d stolen my bike. Were I ever to have dragged the thing upstairs, greased the chain, and wended down the road, slowly and not very far, he’d have made fun of me. I preferred to skip it.

Every time Fletcher went for a ride I got annoyed. How could he stand the boredom? He’d come home some afternoons in a state of brisk satisfaction that his time had improved, usually by a few seconds. Churning the same route through the cornfields to the river a smidgeon faster was of no earthly consequence to anyone. He was forty-six, and soon the computer on his handlebars would simply track his disappointment in himself. I didn’t like to think that I begrudged him something all his own, but he had the furniture making, which was private enough. He used those rides to shut me out.

I felt so guilty about this annoyance that I went to lengths to disguise it, forcing myself to suggest he go for a ride in order, say, to get out of his system some frustration with Tanner, since it makes you feel so much better. But a too-lilting falsetto gave my falsity away. Most confounding: he liked that the cycling annoyed me.

Clearly, I was a bad wife. Aerobic jaunts would lengthen his life. After Cleo, his ex, went so bizarrely off the deep end, Fletcher had grown ever more consumed with control, and as obsessions went the cycling was harmless. Between exercise and his stringent diet, my husband had lost the tiny roll at his middle for which my own mashed potatoes and muffins had been to blame. Yet I’d cherished that little roll, which had softened him in a larger sense. By soliciting forgiveness, the gentle excess had seemed also to dispense it.

I required that forgiveness in some quantity. During the previous three years I must have put on about twenty pounds (I was loath to stand on a scale and confront an exact number). When running Breadbasket I’d been pretty thin. In the catering trade, food has a way of becoming repulsive; a vat of cream cheese is indistinguishable from a batch of plaster. But in my subsequent endeavor, the Mexicans on my staff were forever bringing trays of tamales and enchiladas into work. I’d cooked on my feet; now I sat in my office. Thus I’d come to squander an appalling proportion of my mental time on empty vows to cut down to one meal a day, or on fruitless self-castigation over a second stuffed pepper at lunch. Surely on some unconscious, high-frequency level other people could hear the squeal of this humiliating hamster wheel in my head, a piercing shrill that emitted from every other woman I passed in the aisles of Hy-Vee.

It wasn’t fair, but I blamed Fletcher for those twenty pounds. I may have been a quiet sort who hugged the sidelines, but that didn’t mean I was a pushover. I was the kind of person at whom you could finger-wag and tut-tut-tut, who wouldn’t talk back, who would submit to all manner of browbeating while seeming to take it all in like a good little camper, and you’d walk away and think, There, that’s put her straight, and then I’d sift off and blithely do whatever you’d just told me not to.

That defiant streak had backfired when I started noshing pointedly between meals on whatever entire food group Fletcher had recently disavowed. (The repudiation of cheese was deadly. The day after that announcement, I returned from the supermarket with half a wheel of Brie.) His spurning of the very dishes that had entranced him during our courtship and early marriage—banana cream pie, homemade deep-dish pizza—hurt my feelings. I shouldn’t have conflated love and food, but that’s a mistake women have made for centuries, so why should I be any different? I missed cooking, too, which I found therapeutic. Hence I still baked an occasional coconut layer cake, which Fletcher would boycott, and even the kids would avoid as their father glowered nearby. Well, someone had to eat that cake. Fatally, I felt sorry for it.

We had at least evolved a ritual compromise. From each contraband confection, I cut a one-bite amuse-bouche, arranging it with a dab of whipped cream, a garnish of mint, and a couple of pristine fresh raspberries on a large china dessert plate with a sparkling silver fork. This I would leave in the middle of our prep island, the way kids put out cookies for Santa, then make myself scarce. Fletcher would never take the bait while I was watching; still, it meant more to me than I can say that these illicit samplers of what he now deemed toxic vanished within the hour.

Strictly speaking, as a nutritional Nazi my husband had grown more attractive, but I’d been attracted to him before. Besides, a pointiness was now more pronounced. He had a high forehead and long oval face; shorn to a prickly furze to minimize the balding, his head was bullet-shaped. His long, strong nose in profile looked like a checkmark, and the wire-rimmed glasses added a professorial sharpness. Some strict, censorious quality had entered the triangular geometry of his wide shoulders and newly narrow waist, so that simply being in his physical presence made me feel chided.

As I collected our dishes, it bothered me that Fletcher hadn’t stayed to tidy the kitchen, which wasn’t like him. Commonly we dispatched cleanup with the interlocking fluidity of synchronized swimmers. We were at our best working side by side—neither of us understood or relished leisure time—and my fondest memories were of just this sort of cleanup on a grand scale. When we first started dating, on nights I’d catered a big buffet Fletcher would install Tanner and Cody in sleeping bags on my living room floor, so he could help with the kitchen. (When I first saw him shake his hands at the sink—thrusting fingers downward splat-splat, a small, instinctive motion that ensures you don’t dribble water all over the floor on the way to drying your hands on the dishtowel—I knew this was the man I would marry.) Swabbing counters, sealing leftovers, and rinsing massive mixing bowls, he never complained; he never had to be told what to do. He only took breaks to sidle behind me as I removed another set of warm tumblers from the dishwasher and kiss my neck. Believe it or not, those cleanups in spattered aprons were romantic, better than champagne and candlelight.

Such memories in mind, I could hardly begrudge sudsing the broccoli steamer after lunch for two. I reviewed our conversation. It could have gone worse. Fletcher might himself have announced over my dead body; I’d slyly said it for him. I’d never asked outright, Is it okay if my brother stays in our house for a while? He’d never said yes or no.

Our house. Of course, it was our house.

Having rented most of my life, I still hadn’t shaken the impression that this address on Solomon Drive belonged to someone else; I kept the place fanatically neat as if the real owners might walk in any time unannounced. The house was larger than we required; the kitchen’s plenitude of cabinets invited the purchase of pasta- and bread-making machines that we’d use once. Deserving of the contemptuous tag McMansion, our new home had been an overreaction to the cramp of Fletcher’s tract rental, one of those temporary resorts men seek post-divorce, from which unless a new woman puts her foot down they never move. I’d been flushed with awe that I could suddenly afford to buy a house, in cash no less, and in some ways I bought it simply because I could.

Also, I’d wanted to find Fletcher a workspace. Furniture was his passion, so I bought his passion for him. Naïve in the ways of money, I couldn’t have known beforehand how much he would resent me for it.

Earlier in our marriage, Fletcher had worked for an agricultural company that made genetically modified seed. I’d been keen to enable him to quit because he wasn’t a natural salesman—not from environmentalist aversion to fiddling with nature, or political outrage that corporate America wanted to patent what was once literally for the picking. I didn’t hold many opinions. I didn’t see the point of them. If I opposed the production of nongerminating disease-resistant corn, it would still be sold. I considered most convictions entertainment, their cultivation a vanity, which is why I rarely read the newspaper. My knowing about an assassination in Lebanon wouldn’t bring the victim to life, and given that news primarily aggravated one’s sense of helplessness I was surprised it was so widely heeded. Refusal to forge views for social consumption made me dull, but I loved being dull. Being of no earthly interest to anyone had been a lifelong goal.

In kind, this brick neocolonial had no character. It was newly built, its maple floors unscarred. I adored its unstoried blankness. The sockets were solidly wired, and everything worked. I’d never courted character on my own account, save in the sense of being disinclined to shoplift or cheat on my husband; Edison was the one who sought the designation a real character, and he could have it. I gloried in anonymity and by then violently resented that the glare of an uninvited public spotlight had turned me into someone in particular for other people. (For pity’s sake, you’d think after purposefully burying myself in the very middle of the country the least I could expect was to be inconspicuous.) I had enough history, and with the lone exception of Edison himself my instinct regarding the past was to draw the shade.

The big, lobotomized house formed the perfect neutral backdrop against which Fletcher’s furniture could stand out. At this point my husband’s handiwork had replaced most of the department-store appurtenances of our original combined households. (This joining of domestic forces was the first time in my life that someone had helped me move. With ferocious efficiency, Fletcher could carton a room in an afternoon, which has to be even more romantic than prizing the fiddly scraps from the food processor.) So lithe were his creations that whenever I walked into the living room the furniture seemed to have been grazing on throw rugs moments before. Its back corners curled like stag horns, bowed legs prancing on pared feet, the couch was weighted down with pillows, without which the skittish creature might have cantered out the door.

Though Fletcher liked to think he was improving, my favorite piece was one of his first. We called it the Boomerang. Its red leather cushion was oval. The rail forming the contiguous arms and back slooped high on the right, then arced down on the left, until the far end of the left-hand arm almost touched the floor. The chair looked as if it had been hurled. The slats supporting the great rising back line were also curved—laminated Macassar ebony, rosewood, and maple that he’d soaked for a week to bow. The Boomerang was a talisman of sorts. Most people who’ve refined a skill may cling to such a touchstone: early proof they’ve got the goods. The object to which they can always refer when a current effort is foundering: See? If you can do that, you can do anything. I’d no equivalent myself, because I didn’t care about product. I liked process. Be it a marmalade cake or the absurd merchandise I sold then, output was chaff to me the instant of completion. I found finishing projects perfectly awful.

After scrubbing the beige film from the rice pan, I peered out the front window. It had started to rain, but that never drove my intrepid husband home. Safe in my solitude, I crept upstairs to my home office and booked a plane ticket between LaGuardia and Cedar Rapids, choosing an arbitrary return date that we could always change. I wrote a check for five hundred dollars with incidentals scrawled in the lower-left-hand corner. Enclosing the check and e-ticket printout, I addressed a FedEx mailer to Edison Appaloosa, care of the address Slack had dictated that morning, and booked a pickup on my account.

My having bought this house with the proceeds of my offbeat business two years before might have meant that I had the right to install my brother in its guest room without permission. But pulling fiscal rank struck me as vulgar and undemocratic. There were three Feuerbachs in that house, and only one Halfdanarson.

What called me to run roughshod over Fletcher’s opposition was something else. I was not, as a rule, held hostage to family. At some point I would make the disagreeable discovery of how deep a tie I retained to my father, but not until he died; meantime, I was free to find him unbearable. My sister Solstice was sufficiently my junior that I could almost be her aunt, and it was only at her insistence that she visited me in Iowa every other summer. (She grew up in the fractured remains of a nutty, failed family, on which she’d long tried to impose a more appealing cliché. So she was the only one who bought presents, sent cards, and paid visits whose perfect regularity suggested a discipline.) My lovely mother Magnolia had died when I was thirteen. Both sets of grandparents had passed. A loner until Fletcher, I’d borne none of my own children.

Edison was my family, the sole blood relative whom I clearly and cleanly loved. This one attachment distilled all the loyalty that most people dilute across a larger clan into a devotion with the intensity of tamarind. It was Edison from whom I first learned loyalty; it was therefore Edison from whom all other loyalties flowed, and the beneficiaries of this very capacity to cling fiercely were Fletcher and our kids. I may have been ambivalent about the past we shared, but only Edison and I shared it. In truth, I hadn’t hesitated for a heartbeat when Slack Muncie called that morning. Fletcher was right: it was a trump. Edison was my brother, and we could really have ended the discussion then and there.

chapter two

I’m picking your uncle up at the airport at five. The pecans on my pie smelled nicely toasted, and I pulled it from the oven. Be sure and join us for dinner."

Step-uncle, Tanner corrected, standing at the counter getting toast crumbs on the floor. Right next door to total stranger in my book. Sorry. Got plans.

Change them, I said. I wasn’t asking. You and Cody will be at dinner, period. Seven o’clock, if the plane’s on time. I’d always felt shaky about exerting authority over my stepchildren, even shakier now that Tanner was seventeen, and when you don’t feel confident of authority you do not have it. If he did as I said, he would obey out of pity. When you have a houseguest, I added, laying on the parental shtick even thicker, you may not have to be around for all the other meals, but you do on the first night.

Is that so?

I wasn’t sure what I’d said was true. I mean, I’d really appreciate your being here.

"So you are asking."


That’s different. He wiped butter from his mouth with his sleeve. The guy was here once before, right?

A little over four years ago. Do you remember him?

Got a dim recollection of some blowhard. Kept yakking about bands nobody’s ever heard of. Couldn’t remember my fucking name.

The characterization stung. Edison has a son somewhere, but his ex got full custody when the boy was a baby. So your uncle doesn’t have much experience talking to kids—

"Got the impression the problem was the way he talked to adults. He was boring the shit out of everybody."

He’s a very talented man who’s led a very interesting life—much more interesting than mine. This is a rare opportunity to get to know him. I was speaking to a brick wall.

I hadn’t quite cracked my stepson. Tanner had a blithe sense of entitlement, a certainty that he was destined for an undefined brand of greatness. 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

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  • (3/5)
    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.
  • (5/5)
    High-concept and high-calorieI’m a sucker for novels with high-concept hooks. I can summarize Lionel Shriver’s latest in just a few sentences. Pandora Halfdanarson, a married, mid-western entrepreneur, hasn’t seen her older brother in four years. Edison is a successful jazz pianist out of New York, and this is the longest they’ve ever been apart. A friend of his calls her, indicating that Edison’s fallen on hard times, and she invites him to come stay for a visit. At the airport, she fails to recognize him—in the time they’ve been separated, her brother has gained several hundred pounds!That premise was all I needed to hear. Much like the eponymous brother, I gulped this treat down whole—and enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t feel a large need to summarize the plot further. Is there any more you really need to know? Here’s what’s awesome about the novel: with a premise like that, there were only a few outcomes to the tale that I could readily envisage. Ms. Shriver managed to truly surprise me.This is, I think, the fourth novel dealing with morbid obesity that I’ve read in the past year or two. (For those who are interested, the others were The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, Bed by David Whitehouse, and Heft by Liz Moore, all of which are different, and all of which are recommended.) It’s sort of fascinating to see this cultural preoccupation at last seeping into our literature. I only wonder that it took so long.Ms. Shriver first came to my attention years ago with the publication of the uber-intense We Need to Talk about Kevin. In the years since, I’ve been delighted to see that she likes to change things up. Her last novel, The New Republic, was a satire, for goodness sake! Big Brother doesn’t really remind me of any of her earlier works, except that she always seems to be drawn to a certain darkness. That said, this is really not a dark novel. Honestly, I’m not sure how to describe it as far as tone or genre, other than to say it’s a family drama, not merely about these adult siblings (and their relationship with their father), but also very much about the relationship between each sibling and Pandora’s husband and teenage stepchildren. With Ms. Shriver, it goes without saying that you can expect lovely prose and exactingly-drawn characters. This tale moved quickly! I read it easily in a day. It’s a compelling story, and hard to put down. It’s like an episode of Dr. Phil you know you should turn off, but you just can’t look away. Edison is both sympathetic and deeply repulsive. More than anything, however, I come back to the novel’s ending. I imagine it being polarizing, but I found it inspired. While I have not read them all, this is my favorite of Ms. Shriver’s novels to date.
  • (2/5)
    I feel cheated.
    There was a feeling all along that this novel was written in too-journalistic a way. That is, it felt more like nonfiction, a memoir, than fiction. There were moments when Shriver hit her usual stride with the prose and I kept reading in part hoping there would be more of that.
    I would have given this book 3 stars if that was the only issue. There was quite a bit of unique, thought-provoking material she mentioned in here...the twisted relationship between siblings that can come when they live together as adults, the desire to leave a marriage yet not divorce, and other subtle threads. But she left most of those undeveloped.
    I wonder if she left them undeveloped because of how she handled the time when the two lived together. The fact that SPOILER ALERT the middle portion never happened would explain some of this style choice. But in the end, when it turned out that the middle part never happened, I was more than disappointed. I felt cheated out of the time I'd spent reading. It feels like an easy way out for the story.
    I wanted to like this book because I was so impressed with Kevin. But this one fell flat in a very disappointing way.
  • (5/5)
    Big Brother by Lionel Shriver again focuses on today's current headlines/obsessions. This time it is a family's destructive relationship with food. Pandora was a caterer. Now married to Fletcher, she cooks to show love. Her brother, Edison, is using food to ease his pain and has gained hundreds of pounds."

    Pandora is also a successful owner of a start-up business and even while she downplays her accomplishments, they are truly remarkable. Her husband, Fletcher, has become a health-consumed food Nazi and compulsive exercise junkie who makes handmade furniture in their basement, most of which he is unable to sell. Adding to this already potentially stressful marital situation are Fletcher's two teenagers and a visit from Pandora's now morbidly obese brother, Edison. Even while Pandora is cracking under the strict disciplines her husband wants to live under, she views Edison's life without rules as a cry for help.

    While the subject matter may make people squirm and look over their shoulder in the mirror or jump on that scale one more time, the issues Shriver raises and brings to our attention in this intelligent, very timely novel are worth the price some of us might pay in discomfort.

    I've lived with a food Nazi and the rules they want to impose on everyone around them is simply a way for them to strive to control other people. It doesn't work and will always cause dissension in the ranks. On the other hand, Edison's incredible girth is undeniably unhealthy. But the real question is can you truly help your family by trying to control them or their behavior even if you are doing it for all the right reasons? And beyond that can anyone control the behavior of others?
    Shriver wrote an article about body image: Warning: I Will Employ the Word 'Fat

    "A complex, conflicted relationship to the body isn’t the exclusive preserve of the overweight. To a modest extent, we can control its contours and influence its functionality, but in the main the body is a card we’ve been arbitrarily dealt. Looking in the mirror, we both recognize ourselves and don’t. Are we what we see? What unpleasant surprises about our true natures will emerge when the body falters from illness, age, or accident? Whatever our sizes, in time the body will betray us all. Thus it’s in everyone’s interest to maintain a sharp distinction between, as my narrator in Big Brother puts it, “the who” and “the what.” "

    Yet, again, Shriver's use of language leaves me humbled and admiring. She always uses the exact word to say or describe her scenes or characters. Have you ever, like me, muttered while writing, "No, that's not the word I want - it's like that word but that's not it..."and struggled trying to get the exact word you are searching for untangled from your mind? Lionel Shriver is an incredibly gifted wordsmith. Add that talent to her story telling ability and it leaves me in awe. This may not have been my all-time favorite Lionel Shriver novel, but it is most certainly very highly recommended.

    Disclosure:I received my advanced reading copy from the publisher and TLC for review purposes.
  • (3/5)
    Big BrotherbyLionel ShriverMy" in a nutshell" summary.Basically it's this...a sister goes overboard to help her obese brother lose weight...or does she?My thoughts after reading this book...Oh my...I loved Lionel Shriver's book...We Need To Talk About Kevin. With that thought in mind I was so anxious to hit this book. Edison...Pandora's brother...is clearly obese. If that is not uncomfortable enough...he is also clearly obnoxious. He doesn't have a home, any money, and he appears to be running out of friends. He comes to Pandora and irritates everyone. Sigh! He even irritated me! He seems to have taken over the house. He is the kind of person that in reality would be intolerable. He takes over the kitchen, cooks gigantic amounts of unhealthy fatty foods and again...irritates everyone.Pretty much this book is sort of two books in one...the first part is all about being fat and the second part is all about what Pandora does to help her brother lose weight.What I loved about this book...I am not sure that I really loved anything about this book...seriously. I am sad to say that but it's what I feel. What I did not love...I don't think I was a good fit for this book. It didn't absorb me, it didn't make me feel good about food or people or relatives...or handmade furniture...lol...and the whole idea of leaving your family to live with this obnoxious brother...kind of not believable.Final thoughts...My final thoughts about what I read are usually clear. In this case and for this book they are not clear. I have mixed feelings about this book and most of them are not good ones. The writing is great, the character descriptions clear...but I didn't enjoy this book. Plus I missed th twist...a friend had to point it out to me!
  • (4/5)
    “Big Brother” takes a multi-faceted approach to one of the most emotional and personal aspects of many people’s lives – their relationship with their body and as an extension – their relationship with food. How we appear to other people is such a part of how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive who we are. Gender and race are things we cannot change. Our bodies – our actual size – is something we can change. The reasons for doing so – or not doing so – and how others react to us – are numerous and very deep.The main character of “Big Brother” – Pandora (interesting choice) is confronted with the need to deal with all of these subjects when her older brother Edison comes for a visit and she finds that he is not the man she had expected. He has nearly tripled in size from when she last saw him. “I took my coffee to the stove and put an arm around his shoulders. It shocked me that it took a small but detectable overcoming of revulsion to touch my own sibling.” During his visit, she learns a great deal about herself and about the relationship she thought she had with her brother. “Clearly, my brother had neither read my interviews nor looked at my website. I wondered if I felt hurt. I marveled that I didn’t seem to. Instead I felt an increment sorrier for Edison. If I felt any sorrier for Edison, I would faint.” “I was the middle child, the stepmother, until recently the mere caterer of other people’s grand occasions. Well before sharing a rare center stage in my long-in-coming marriage, I’d grown accustomed to feeling ancillary – a bit off to the side, an afterthought. This was my first intimation of what it might feel like to be too important.”And then the visit changes. Pandora decides to take on a challenge – and to completely change her life and those of all of her family members. In the midst of this challenge, some of her insights/thoughts on weight, losing weight, body image, and self-worth…are fascinating. “Ever since Edison gave me cause to, I’ve made a study of this: the hierarchy of apprehensions when laying eyes on another person. Once a form emerges from the distance that is clearly a human and not a lamppost, we now log (1) gender, (2) size. This order of recognitions may be universal in my part of the world, though I do not believe “size” has always been number two. Yet these days I am apt to register that a figure is slight or fat even before I pick up a nanosecond later that they are white, Hispanic or black.” “I believed – and could not understand why I believed this, since I didn’t believe it – that the number on the dial was a verdict on my very character. It appraised whether I was strong, whether I was self-possessed, whether I was someone anyone else would conceivably wish to be.” While I am not quite sure how I feel about the plot device that is used near the end of the book – I could certainly appreciate how Shriver so often cuts right to the quick in describing feelings about food and weight that many, if not all of us, have had. When Pandora tries to start eating solid food again after a long time on a liquid diet - “I felt exiled, ejected from Eden, an eternally pristine garden where Eve is forever unsullied by eating the apple because she doesn’t eat anything. From the first book of the Bible, food correlates with evil, and I felt contaminated. Demoted to one more schlub who has to decide whether to have a second cookie, I wasn’t special anymore.” “…weight loss made for a pretty shabby religion, if only because for faithful adherents it had a sell-by date; you could only continue to worship at the altar of comestible restraint if you chronically failed your vows.”Food isn’t something any person can quit. It’s one of the toughest addictions to deal with because of that. There is no going cold turkey on food. We all have to eat – we do all eat…and how we think of ourselves and how others think of us is complex, emotional, irrational and highly charged. This book brings that truth to the fore.
  • (4/5)
    Pandora's big brother, jazz musician Edison, is unrepentantly fat when he comes to stay with her because he has no where else to go. Pandora's husband is obsessively and stridently health conscious.You can tell from just that there will be much conflict, but how much will Pandora do to help and how much is she willing sacrifice to be peacemaker? Only she can make that decision.This story is about family dynamics gone desperately awry, about the obesity problem now being called an epidemic in the U.S. Pandora, who claims to never want the spotlight, has become successful by selling dolls that insult those they are given to, passive-aggression flaunting itself as humor, supporting the less financially successful and therefore resentful members of her family.That should give you a clue to the dynamics of this book.The writing, for the most part, was wonderful. Pandora and Edison's father is a washed-up TV star from a mostly forgotten series that was more real to him than his real life. The book included a good-sized chunk of explanation about the show, and I got bored with that, but otherwise, the book was entertaining and thought-provoking. The ending was not what I expected, but I wasn't disappointed in the turn that the book took.I think I've read only one other book by this author, So Much For That, and I didn't love it. I decided to read this one only because the subject sounded so intriguing, and now I'm going to have to try more of her books. This one exceeded my expectations.I was given an advance copy of this book for review, for which I am grateful.
  • (4/5)
    The backstory: Lionel Shriver is an author whose work I've enjoyed immensely in the past. After raving about So Much For That (I gave it 5 stars), I also enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin (I gave it 4.5 stars) and The New Republic (I gave it 4 stars.) I'm utterly fascinated with both her work and her as a person, because her books and characters are so distinct.The basics: Big Brother is the story of Pandora, who grew up in Los Angeles with a father who starred on a popular 1970's family sitcom with parallels to her life. She now lives in Iowa with her husband Fletcher, a health nut, and his two children. When her brother Edison, an accomplished jazz pianist, arrives for a visit, Pandora cannot believe how obese her brother has become.My thoughts: I didn't realize this novel is set in Iowa until I began reading it, and it was a treat. From the point of view of this Iowa transplant, Shriver nailed the details, the positive and the negative, of everyday life in Iowa. Pandora, too, is a fascinating character. Life so many Shriver narrators, she is somewhat brash, refreshingly honest and insightful, and beautifully formed. I did, however, chuckle at her use of the phrase "But, to my horror," because I could imagine almost any Shriver character using that phrase, despite their differences. What Shriver characters also tend to have in common is a clear view of both the world and themselves.In addition to the fascinating character of Pandora, a woman I'm not sure I would actually want to be friends with, but one who fascinates me, is the powerful theme of family and obligation. As a stepmother and wife, Pandora in some ways feels she owes her brother more than her husband and his family:"He's a sponger you're related to by accident. I'm your husband by choice. If you 'love' that loudmouth it's a kneejerk genetic thing; I'm supposed to be the real love of your life."This tension is palpable throughout the novel, and it's one I keep coming back to. In most cases, of course, it's not a choice. Your 'chosen' family and the family you were born with can peacefully coexist. But how does it feel to have to choose, on some level, between the two? Shriver explores these ideas beautifully through Pandora, Edison and Fletcher. Each character's perspective makes sense, and their conflicting thoughts and feelings are beautifully realized.Yet as fascinated as I was with these characters, they never seemed quite real to me. As I read, I got caught up in the ideas more than the stories themselves. I couldn't shake the sense that Shriver had an agenda and is more interested in making her readers think than in telling a story. I'm not opposed to either, but this novel often felt more like an exercise in thinking than a captivating story. Shriver's writing and observations are often profound and challenging, but I can't quite shake the feelings of being somewhat manipulated as I read.Favorite passage: "If I held few opinions, I did cling to a handful--like the view that facts are not the same as beliefs, and that most people get them confused."The verdict: I appreciated Big Brother more once I finished it. Is it an accomplished, intelligent, thoughtful novel? Absolutely. Is it one I will continue to think of and ponder? Yes. Was it a novel I loved while reading? Not always. Ultimately, it's a novel I appreciate and respect far more than I enjoyed it.
  • (3/5)
    I was a little disappointed in this book. I know that the author lost her brother due to weight issues and this book is definitely about us and our weird relationship with food. It was told in the first person, which is always a bit tricky, but this allowed the narrator and chance to. I almost felt lectured, on all and sundry having to do with weight and food. Also the narrator's father in the book had been a TV movie star back in the day and we are treated to further diatribes on this. The main story was okay, family members and what we owe them, how to keep our own family content while dealing with a very large brother who is a house guest, but once again how this is resolved seemed a bit unbelievable. There are some good parts here and there about what food means to different people and how often food is used as a weapon or a crutch, but for me this wasn't enough. I also did not really like any of the characters with the exception of Cody, the young girl who is kind and tries to keep everyone together. Other readers may find what I did not interesting but for me, I just expected more.
  • (3/5)
    Spoiler alert: Maybe a little one coming up.....I really don't know how to write a helpful review about this book. I finished it ten minutes ago, and can't even decide how to rate it. I will start with what I liked; The writing was excellent, I thought. I had never read anything from this author, and thought her storytelling was superb. I eagerly anticipated getting back into the book every evening. I am not a person who will continue to read if a book is not entertaining me, so just getting to the end will tell you the book had something going for it.As for what I did not like; The characters, all except Cody the stepdaughter, were beyond annoying. The "big brother" with the massive weight problem was SO aggravating, referring to people as "cats" and putting, "dig?" at the end of every other sentence. His ridiculous overeating greatly exaggerated the actual journey to obesity, I thought. I don't think most people shovel down boxes of confectioner's sugar and wolf down all sorts of fattening foods as if they had been starving. It just seemed so exaggerated. The husband and his obsessive running and dieting was just as bad. The "Wait a minute. Did I really tell you that story?" ending seemed so contrived.I'm just not sure what the author was trying to say. I might have been expecting more as I had seen this book featured in People Magazine a couple of months ago and looked forward to a good read. Would I recommend this to anyone? No, I really would not. I do, however, appreciate the fact that the author sent it to me as I had won the book in the Giveaways program, and I plan on reading one of her other books because I have heard very good things about them.
  • (5/5)
    Fans of Lionel Shriver will not be disappointed with this new novel, which I am absolutely placing at the top of my 2013 list (at least for now, who knows what gems are still to come?) As always, Shriver has crafted a detailed and complex narrative about family dynamics, love, loyalty, and the question of how to gauge what one person might 'owe' another, especially a blood relation. This is a story about fat as a social issue, a personal battle, and a family tragedy.A quick plot summary would do this book and its readers an injustice - suffice it to say that 'Big Brother' has something for every kind of reader: sibling rivalry, fame, television, parental dysfunction, spousal competition, and food, glorious food. Shriver's characters are not always likable, or lovable, but they are strikingly real and sometimes painfully human. She writes witty dialogue and vocabulary-heavy descriptions that immerse the reader in the lives and minds of the characters; even the lesser characters are given brief moments to shine.To anyone who has ever felt out of control in the face of someone else's struggle, or struggled themselves to reach out to someone else while maintaining a fragile hold on his or her own life, this book is a must-read. I highly recommend 'Big Brother', it's deserving of more than five stars!
  • (4/5)
    First, the good: Lionel Shriver has a gift with words. I highlighted a handful of passages in this book because they were so well written; at turns, evocative, lyrical, clever, lighthearted or funny . Early on in my reading I turned to my husband and said "I'm not even 50 pages in and already she's used "folderol" and "foofaraw" - this is my kind of book!" I thought the pacing was swift - despite pausing to savor my favorite sentences, this was still a quick read. Without giving anything away, Shriver uses an unusual technique near the end of the book that would be hard to pull off, but somehow seems perfect for these characters. The bad: Almost to the one, these people are making bad choices. Not just ones that might lead to undesired outcomes, but one that hurt themselves and each other. Their motivations are often selfish, their solutions are damaging, their emotional maturity is low. Seriously, whatever they're doing, they're doing wrong! Among them, they are co-dependent, uncommunicative, bullying, self-righteous, narcissistic, unproductive, hubristic, passive-aggressive, and fat. And the whole thrust of the book is this: we must fix the fat man. Being fat is a moral flaw, a wrong that must be made right at all costs. I wanted to shake all of them - fine, fix the fat man, but also? Fix yourselves! Final verdict: Although I hated these people, I think Big Brother would make a great book club book. There is a lot to discuss & debate about the writing craft choices Shriver made AND the subject matter and characters give readers plenty to sink their teeth into. And an addendum. I first gave this book a 1 1/2 star rating. I thought I really hated it. Then I started writing the review. The more I wrote, the higher the rating got until I finally settled on four stars. I figure any book that inspires me to write a spontaneous review and pisses me off so much, is probably pretty darn good after all. I'd much rather read a book that invokes a passionate response than one that simply entertains. Well played, Ms Shriver.
  • (4/5)
    Food is by nature elusive. More concept than substance, [...] food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself.Forty-year-old Pandora Halfdanarson is a business entrepreneur, a wife and step-mother, middle child of ‘70s sitcom star Travis Appaloosa ... and younger sister to New York jazz pianist Edison, whose life has collapsed to rock-bottom under the ~400-pound weight of obesity. When Edison’s last friend kicks him out, Pandora welcomes him to her home in Iowa, and Shriver begins an exploration of obesity and family, particularly marriage and sibling relationships.I read Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and found it riveting. It was about outward-facing violence -- the evolution of a school shooter -- whereas here the look is inward -- the evolution of self-destructive habits. The novels feel remarkably similar in terms of characters (including angry unlikeables) and especially in style -- the ruminative narrative here could turn into the epistolary narrative of Kevin with only the addition of, “Dear...” to begin each chapter. But just as there’s more drama with extroverts than introverts, and with violence to others vs. lack of self-care, so this novel is quieter. Boring even came to mind over the first half, which is mostly set-up. Yet the pages fly ... to an ending that’sperhaps better than the whole book.Edison['s] my family, the sole blood relative whom I clearly and cleanly love. This one attachment distilled all the loyalty that most people dilute across a larger clan into a devotion with the intensity of tamarind.The sibling relationship and obesity are fresh aspects in this novel, and good reasons to consider reading it.(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
  • (3/5)
    Lionel Shriver is a gifted author as evidenced by We Need To Talk About Kevin. Big Brother is the story of a morbidly obese man who visits his sister in Iowa after having worn out his welcome in New York with friends from his career as a jazz pianist. The first part is brilliant, the second part makes the characters less than likeable on many levels, and the third part is the abrupt reality. I am impressed with Shriver's skills as a writer, but this one cannot compare with We Need To Talk About Kevin in its plot and believability.
  • (4/5)
    I doubt anything will ever have the impact for me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but Big Brother was a very good book, hard to put down, with that wonderfully arch and honest voice that I recognized from Shriver's most popular book. It is about a successful business owner whose morbidly obsese brother disrupts her life and her marriage. Pandora, whose company makes customized talking dolls that mock their recipient, is married to a slightly fussy, health conscious and conspicuously unsuccessful furniture maker when her brother Eddie, a failed jazz musician, pops in for a visit and is almost unrecognizably fat. Pandora decides, to her husband's understandable consternation, to move to an apartment with her brother and help him lose the weight.What struck me most about the book was not the issue of Fat but of Family, and how entangled we all are with family loyalties and guilt, no matter how independent and separate we suppose ourselves. I see that many readers objected to the book's ending, and for a minute I was disappointed myself, but Shriver won me over with Pandora's emotionally truthful explanation for what might pass for a narrative trick.
  • (4/5)
    What do you do when your beloved older brother shows up at the airport and you don't recognize him because he is morbidly obese? Do you pretend nothing has changed? Do you confront him about his weight? Do you try to figure out why he gained so much weight? Do you offer to coach him into losing weight at the risk of losing your spouse and family? If you are Pandora Halfdnarson you do all of those things in succession.Pandora and her brother Edison move into an apartment and go on a strict liquid only diet. Pandora has about 40 pounds to lose but Edison has over 200. Obviously, it is going to take Edison much longer but Pandora figures a year should be sufficient.It's rather ironic that Lionel Shriver took on obesity as the subject of this book; Shriver is thin and from what I have read she always has been. I must say that her portrayal is mostly sympathetic but there were times when I said to myself "No way." For instance, she has Edison cook for Pandora once Pandora is down to her ideal weight but Edison continues on the liquid diet and never tastes a morsel of what he cooks. I just don't think that is possible. I also didn't like the whole concept of the liquid diet because I felt it did not teach either of the dieters how to eat properly. Most people who lose weight and keep it off do it gradually and by changing their habits.Still, I enjoyed listening to this book and it even got me re-dedicated to losing weight myself.
  • (5/5)
    From the author of We need to talk about Kevin - but much more believable. Story about family relationships, the extent of our responsibilities to each other and the the writing of the story itself. Read on ebook from Waimak library.
  • (5/5)
    In Lionel Shriver’s mammoth 2003 bestseller, We Need to Talk About Kevin, the novel is narrated by a mother whose teenage son has perpetrated a Columbine-type mass murder. The story is told in excruciating detail and psychological depth by the psychotic adolescent’s mother. The mother is motivated to write her story in order to answer her own question: “Am I responsible?” In Shriver’s latest novel, responsibility remains a key issue. Big Brother is narrated by a middle-aged sister who discovers, after a four-year period of not seeing her brother, that this beloved older sibling has become morbidly obese. He is so immense that he is literally eating himself into an early grave. In this book, the sister tells about her discovery of her brother’s health issue, the brother’s two-months stay at her home, the impact that visit had on her and each member of her family, and finally, the enormous lengths she went through to help rescue her brother from his potentially fatal eating disorder. Ultimately, we have to ask: “How much responsibility did the sister really owe her brother to help rescue him from his fatal obsession with food?” At the same time, the reader is pulled up hard against the same significant moral issue: “How much responsibility should any of us bear to rescue anyone we care about from obesity?”I found this book deceptively (and deliciously) alluring. Shriver is a master literary storyteller. For me, a significant part of the joy of reading this novel was seeing how carefully the author crafted this story. After I finished the book, I went back and examined the book’s architecture and plotting. I must say, I admire Shriver’s brilliance.Overall, the novel is a veiled, strange, dark, and twisted tale; however, the page-by-page reading experience is much lighter—actually full of humor, and the odd sensation of peeking in on behaviors that are mostly kept private. It was definitely compelling. I finished it in a little over a day. This is one of those books that gained greater favor with me after I finished it. At first, I thought it was a strong four-star book. But the book’s moral theme kept my mind spinning. I couldn’t stop feeling like I desperately wanted to discuss this book with somebody. I wanted—no, I needed—to talk about obesity…in general, and also within the context of this book. That’s when the book moved in my mind from four to five stars. Obesity is an important issue and we need to weigh our individual moral responsibility to help resolve what has become a national epidemic. There’s no doubt about it: Big Brother would make a first-rate book club selection.
  • (5/5)
    This book will make my top 10 for 2013
  • (5/5)
    Big Brother is my first exposure to a Lionel Shriver novel. My first impression, one that hardly changed for most of the book, was that Shriver is a good storyteller who populates her novels with a cast of interesting, well-developed characters. Her characters, flawed human beings that they are, are all the more realistic because making them “likable” is not a goal - rather, Shriver wants the reader to understand and remember them. I had a feeling that I would be exploring Shriver’s earlier work soon.And then it happened. I reached the book’s final few pages and got a surprise that made me see Lionel Shriver and Big Brother very differently. It was one of those “aha moments” that made me realize there was a lot more going on here than I thought.Successful businesswoman Pandora Halfdanarson has made a nice life for herself in Iowa where she lives with her husband and his two teen-aged children. Pandora, who spent summers in the area with her grandparents when she was a child, enjoys the relative simplicity of her lifestyle there. Her big brother, however, has taken the opposite approach with his own life. Edison, a talented jazz pianist, enthusiastically adopted his television-actor father’s screen-name, becoming Edison Appaloosa in the process, and moved to New York City to make his name. And, especially to hear him tell it, Edison has done quite well there.But, as Pandora learns when Edison pays her a long-delayed family visit, all is not as it seems. The handsome brother she expects to collect at the airport is nowhere to be found. Instead, Pandora finds a morbidly obese version of Edison she barely recognizes as her brother. Edison is so big that, strictly for the convenience of complaining passengers, he has been carted to baggage claim in a wheelchair. When she gets him home to her family, Pandora and her husband are dismayed to find that all of Edison’s numerous bad habits have grown in proportion to the rest of him. He is the houseguest from hell.Big Brother is most obviously about the obese and how they are perceived and treated by others – despite the fact that obesity is so common in this country. Shriver’s portrayal of their self-esteem problems and physical limitations is blunt; she does not shy away from any aspect of their daily lives, including cleanliness issues. She is equally blunt about the callous reaction to the grotesquely overweight that so many of us do not even try to hide from “big” people when we see them. But that is just the beginning of what Lionel Shriver wants to say. Big Brother is also about family loyalty, bad parenting, personal courage, blind love, depression, dieting, and chasing fame for fame’s sake.And then there’s that surprise that I can’t tell you about. Bottom Line: This one, particularly because of one or two memorable scenes, might not be for everyone, but those who stay with it will most likely consider themselves to have been well rewarded for the effort.
  • (4/5)
    As others have already written, the writing itself is good but the ending? Disappointing to say the least and Edison, the big brother---as in real life, he represented a tremendous, no pun intended, problem with the negatives of the high fat, sugar, salt food supply/industry and too many people who can't find anything that appeals to them about life once they start down the road of eating everything in sight. It's a very sad commentary---yes, there were funny parts but the book was depressing in so many ways. I couldn't quite imagine the ending beyond the idea of Edison reaching his ideal weight and I guess the author couldn't really figure that out either.
  • (4/5)
    Firstly, I am writing this not having read any other reviews. Secondly, my BMI is at the border between normal and overweight. In that context, here goes:Unbelievable, a novel by Lionel Shriver that is actually laugh-out-loud funny! Shriver takes herself extremely seriously, so perhaps it is unintentionally funny? And only in parts. In other parts, I came to the realisation that there is only one thing more tedious than being on a diet, and that is reading about someone else on a diet.Sticking with it (the book, I mean) as this dieting progresses, I wondered at the presumptuousness of the slimming method adopted. Wouldn't what Shriver appeared to be advocating pose a grave danger to public health? I mean, four little envelopes of powder for months on end? Is she seriously suggesting that this is a sound and sustainable approach to help a morbidly obese man? Would it really be possible for anyone to follow this regime?As always with this writer, the book is full of thrillingly incisive, pithy observations about life in general, that had me poised over the text with a highlighter pen. However, I got a distinct feeling that Pandora is actually Shriver (and that was before I read an article revealing that Shriver did in fact have a fat brother). Pandora's voice is disciplined, controlling, intolerant of failure and without an overabundance of heartfelt sympathy for the foibles of her fellow man. Pandora is childless, but a step-mother, to allay any suggestion that there is perhaps part of her personality not quite filled out. Pandora seems to have the attitude that, seeing she has made it and has money, she is a pillar of virtue who can tell everyone else how to run their lives and what is good for them. For most of the book, despite the protagonist's efforts to disguise it, that stance appears jaw-droppingly arrogant and was an irritation to a reader like me.BUT the book redeems itself...(How? Can't tell you. No spoilers here. Read the book. To the end.)
  • (3/5)
    This would be a good selection for a book club, there are endless topics for discussion: America’s weight obsession, the diet industry, nutrition, addiction, family dynamics, marriage, etc. I wish someone had been reading it at the same time with me so that we could discuss it. (“Can you believe she did that?! She’s freakin crazy!!”) My book club would balk at the length, but if you take into account that much of the second part is repetitive, it’s not really that long.

    As always, Shriver’s writing is excellent, her descriptions are elegant and incisive…. However, it felt like something was “off” with the story, it really stretched suspension of disbelief past the breaking point. Not to spoil it, but you find out why at the very end. To be perfectly blunt - it is a plot device that I hate and it makes me feel like the author has violated some sort of contract with the reader. (If you’ve read Atonement by Ian McEwan you’ll know what I’m talking about – that was another book that made me want to hurl it against a wall.)
  • (4/5)
    Prior to this I’d only read two books by Shriver and I don’t remember much of either of them, especially any authorial chicanery which is a big part of how this book ends. I think it was the polarizing effect of that which kept me from reading it for so long. It makes sense to be written that way even though as a reader I said “really, she’s doing this to me?”. She has some spot-on things to say about being fat in America. Mostly that even though the average heft just keeps going up, fat folks are basically written off as bad or defective; a product of their own weak wills or gluttony. They’re not seen as anything but fat and that’s pretty sad. I was fully engaged in the story though, so I’ll give her that much. Implausible as it was, I often like reading about people who make choices I would never make in a million years. When it comes to putting up with bullshit I’m remarkably heartless. I don’t care who you are; if you’re a jerk and taking advantage of me you’re done. Not so Pandora. She lets Big Brother walk all over her. Granted, the way Fletcher was portrayed didn’t make me want to be married to him either, but it’s fiction so I let it go. As a person who could stand to lose a few pounds, I live with the problem of not being able to shed extra pounds. I’ve done it before but previous methods aren’t working now and I’m at a loss. The thing is, my extra 15 hasn’t made me an asshole nor did losing it a couple of years ago magically make me a saint. That’s kind of how Edison is characterized in the book. Oh sure, Shriver takes some pains to tell us that Fletcher has ALWAYS hated him and even Pandora grudgingly admits her brother is a boastful windbag who doesn’t get off his fat ass for anything except pork rinds. But then as he sheds the fat, Edison also sheds his selfishness, sloppiness, need to name drop, self-pity and unwillingness to work a straight job. It’s insulting and if she did it to add to the verisimilitude of the whole Edison loses weight story, I get it.Bottom line is it’s fantasy. Edison doesn’t lose any weight. Neither does Pandora. It’s a complete parallel of the whole diet industry which makes money hand over fist despite something like a 90% failure rate. It’s sad and quite true, but told with the smugness of a thin person. A person who has always been thin and has no real fear of that ever changing. Granted, Shriver had a brother who died from obesity complications, but that isn’t the same as having your body betray you and then not respond to a single thing you try to do about it. As a story it works though and I wasn’t overly offended by the smug.
  • (3/5)
    I found the set-up so artificial that it was harder for me to get into the story than any of her other novels I've read. Sometimes things would happen -- capital of which is the siblings moving in together -- that I just couldn't believe, and that jerked me out of the story. She always brought me back, but it was a tougher road than I expected. So, I also felt jerked out of the story by the "twist." And I completely agree with other reviewers about the narrator being a light sketch of Shriver herself. All that said, I didn't dislike the book. There were so many tidbits of philosophy, not to mention that the way characters interact with each other (in this and all of her books) is so compelling and real to me. I would not recommend Big Brother over others of her books, but I still am glad I read it.
  • (3/5)
    SO, I really, really liked this book. Until the end. I'm not sure why the author chose to go that way with the ending (I won't spoil it), but it changed my outlook on the entire book.

    Really well written, but it lost me in Part 3.
  • (3/5)
    Big Brother It's hard to know what to say about a book in which the author is so obviously laying out her own personal issues. (As described here.) I can't help but wonder if she would have been better off just talking about some of this with a therapist. It's an interesting (if odd) book, not badly written, but some of the characters who are supposed to be attractive and sympathetic just seem like asses. And the author seems to want us to approve of the protagonist's unkind, even punitive treatment of her brother--which makes some psychological sense given the backstory, but very little sense within the world of the novel.
  • (5/5)
    This is the 3rd novel I have read by Shriver and they have all been excellent. She has a great way with words and she takes an important topic and builds her book around it. In this case it is eating on both the obesity and the strict food intake side. Both extremes are examined in this very entertaining book. In addition to the food issue, Shriver gets into sibling, marital, step-children, parents, and friend relationships. She deals with L.A. versus Iowa. The basic story has Pandora a successful entrepreneur who has a marriage to Fletcher that is 7 years old and comes with 17 and 13 year old children. They live in Iowa. Into her life comes her jazz piano playing brother Edison who she hasn't seen for 4 years. They are close because of their upbringing with a TV star father. Turns out Edison has gained over 200 pounds since she last saw him and is having a hard economic downturn. Fletcher is a food fanatic and avid cyclist who makes custom furniture that doesn't sell. The clash between the obese Edison and Fletcher is one of the many stories in this book. Shriver does a great job of making it all work while also making an important statement about our relationship to food. This book helped me realize that as a reader we always tend to question the plausibility of plot lines in novels. Especially, if it is going to be a reasonable tale. This book did stretch my belief that all of the actions could occur, but then I realize that this is fiction and the higher purpose of this book was achieved through Shriver's plot. There is a twist at the end that many people had trouble with. For me it did not impact the overall value of the book. Shriver is a great writer that deals with big issues. If you have not read anything by her, then this is a good place to start.
  • (3/5)
    The "realness" of the conclusion is overridden by the romance of the body of the story --which I found more appealing.Brother comes to vist--huge--sister takes on task of helping him lose almost 200 pounds. He loses it. She almost loses her marriage, and he instantly gains it all back. Reality--after 2 months of a difficult visit she puts him on a plane. He ultimately dies of the results of being overweight. Intriguing for a while, but the end twist was the sorry reality.
  • (4/5)
    This is a novel about family and food, and toxic interactions among them. Pandora, who lives with her husband and two step-children in Iowa, provides a place for her adored brother to stay when he's down and out. His surprise obesity, gargantuan appetite, and inconsiderate habits take a toll on Pandora's household and test everyone's tolerance and commitment to each other. The musings on food's dominance in our culture and individual wrestling with food issues are a strong aspect of this book. My annoyance with the behavior of the main characters stood in the way of my appreciation of the novel, though, and I had to force myself to finish it. In case anyone else is inclined not to finish it, the ending is strong and important. Or is it a cop-out?