Title: Big Brother
Author: Lionel Shriver
Release Date: June 4, 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
When Pandora learns that her brother Edison, a jazz pianist, has been down on his luck and is between apartments, she invites him to stay for a couple of months. She knows it will irritate her husband, Fletcher, but she feels the need to reach out. But when Edison arrives at the airport, Pandora is absolutely shocked. Her once fit older brother has gained hundreds of pounds and is completely unrecognizable. Pandora must make some difficult decisions as she grapples with the meaning of family and what it is to help another person.
Big Brother is an incredibly thought-provoking novel that tackles many difficult issues head on. Let’s start with the most obvious: obesity. Shriver isn’t afraid to discuss this difficult subject plainly, and through each character she delivers varied opinions and thoughts. Pandora loves her brother and is worried about his health. Fletcher is quite obviously disgusted by Edison’s weight and takes his overeating as a personal affront. Meanwhile, all Edison wants to do is eat. He doesn’t care about calories and weight; he’s lost everything that made his life good, and now he finds comfort in food. It’s so interesting to think about the different facets of morbid obesity; is it Pandora’s business, just as a disease for which Edison refused to seek treatment might be, or is it Edison’s choice in how he lives his life?
Family is another subject that takes center stage in Big Brother. While Pandora does think of Fletcher’s kids as her own, the fact is that she’s a stepmother. When Edison arrives, she has someone on her side. But where does family end? Is Edison part of Fletcher’s family? Fletcher makes clear he is not happy with Edison’s continued presence in their home. Where does Pandora’s loyalty to Fletcher end? In a choice between her husband and brother, who is more important? This discussion is made especially interesting by the fact that Edison is not a good houseguest. He’s a great character, and despite how annoying he can be, Shriver makes sure that the reader has a soft spot for him. But that doesn’t change the fact that it often feels like Edison is taking advantage of Pandora. The amount of self-pity he showers on himself is frustratingly impressive.
Pandora herself is an incredibly easy character to sympathize with in Big Brother, even as she’s making bad decisions. Readers will probably yell at loud at her while reading; she tries her best to be a good person, but the costs might not be worth it. She has more patience than I ever would with both Edison and Fletcher, and it’s clear she loves them both deeply. She has a good heart and wants good things for those she loves, even if they cannot be what she wants them to.
This is a novel I could go on and on about; there is so much to discuss within its pages, so much to think about, and I haven’t even gotten to the ending. Without giving away any spoilers, Shriver throws a complete curveball at the reader as they’re nearing the final pages of the novel. What was already interesting and provocative becomes even more so with these new revelations. Love it or hate it (and it will likely be one or the other), with both the book as a whole and the ending, Shriver achieves her goal beautifully with Big Brother: to make you think.
Other books by Lionel Shriver: