Read: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

I found out the personal parallels between author Lionel Shriver and her protagonist Pandora Halfdanarson only after reading the book, for which I'm glad. It gave an additional layer of poignancy and I can see that perhaps the novel was a work of catharsis but had I known in advance, Pandora's character would have been painted with even more self-indulgence.

Shriver's own brother was morbidly obese and died of cardiac arrest. The book explores the complicated relationship the Western world, but particularly America, has with food.
The book begins with Pandora stating her case to take in her annoying yet brilliant brother Edison who has hit hard times, despite her husbands blatant dislike for him; he is her big brother who she hero worships and has done since they were children growing up with a fame hungry TV star father. However his arrival is a shock, in the few years since they have last seen each other Edison has gained so much weight he is barely recognisable and has become the sort of person that other people are visibly disgusted by without the lingering aftertaste of sympathy. He is HUGE.

He is also brash, loud and an incessant brag who elicits pity from Pandora's teen step daughter Cody but fails to impress her step son Tanner and constantly rubs her perpetually on a restricted calorie diet husband Fletcher up the wrong way. In many ways Fletcher and Edison represent Shriver's views on the two opposing relationships Americans have with food - over indulgent, glutinous and perilous versus pious, restrictive and joyless. Pandora's character seems to stand for a female take on food; all her food memories are tied to events and occasions rather than flavours, her favourite photographs based on how thin she looks.

Pandora takes on the mammoth task of spearheading her brothers weight loss - moving in with him and even joining him on a diet of powdered drinks - and risking her marriage to save his life. Although this scenario seems unlikely, Shriver manages to pull this off through her detailed explanation of the precarious situation and the pressure it puts on her personal relationships. The weight loss is supposed to pale in comparison to the change in personality Edison undergoes, humbled by the experience of hitting rock bottom; there is a horrifying scene where Pandora literally has to scoop up Edison's runaway shit. That has to be rock bottom for anyone. However it falls flat because Edison is a rather 2D character full of grating catchphrases and we never really scratch the surface of the emotional impact of his life threatening size, we never feel truly sorry for him nor despise him.
Pandora, whilst much more developed, as a self-sacrificing reluctantly successful business woman with a desire to blend in and be normal in her anonymity, seems an exercise is self-flagellation after finding out Shriver's own story.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver's most well known novel, is so twisted and complex that I was approaching the end of the book which appeared to be wrapping up neatly, wondering if she'd lost her edge. I needn't have worried; I was quickly met with two gruesome twists, however they felt a little like after thoughts and were under developed if brilliant. Either one would have worked beautifully if just left to sit with the reader a little longer.

Shanika Says: While by no means perfect, Big Brother is an interesting examination of food, family and how the two are so often linked.

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