Title: Big Brother
Author: Lionel Shriver
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: Liked it a Lot (4 out of 5)
When Pandora hears from her brother Edison’s friend that he (Edison) isn’t doing too well and could do with a helping hand, her first thought is to send Edison a plane ticket along with an offer of a place to stay (his problem, he tells her, is he is between apartments whilst waiting for some money to come in). Her second thought is how she will tell her husband, Fletcher, because Edison’s last visit four years previously hadn’t gone well. A jazz musician and free spirit, Edison has a tendency to rub people up the wrong way.
It doesn’t help that Pandora and Fletcher’s marriage isn’t in the best place. Pandora has accidentally turned a hobby into a successful business; Fletcher has failed to do the same. He is struggling and reliant on Pandora to pay the bills. Unable to control this part of his life, he attempts to control others, including how and what his family eats and how he looks, going on long bike rides and exercising regularly.
Food is important to Fletcher but as fuel, not as something to be enjoyed. He cooks all his family meals and makes sure they are healthy and nutritious if not tasty, seemingly unaware this is driving a wedge between him and his wife. It is a wedge that grows when Edison arrives. He is no longer the slim, sexy, jazz musician they last saw. Instead he is clinically obese, unable to even sit on their furniture because it is too small. Pandora is shocked, Fletcher repulsed. Edison is oblivious, taking over the kitchen and cooking up big batches of pasta instead of the usual brown rice and broccoli.
His weight is the elephant in the room. No one says anything, asks how, when, why it happened. In fact, they enable him, eating with him and Pandora, too, starts to pile on the pounds. Knowing she has to do something and, desperate to save her brother’s life, Pandora offers him a lifeline. They will move into an apartment, the two of them, and lose the weight. Edison accepts. The question is whether he can change because, just like Fletcher, food is important to Edison, a way to control his life when other things aren’t going his way. And nothing else, it seems, is going his way.
On a wider scale, Big Brother, is about society’s relationship with food and how many of us seem to have lost our way, eating too much food that isn’t good for us and getting bigger and unhealthier. And how we seem to have our heads in the sand. It is this that makes this book (at times) an uncomfortable read. I’m not overweight but I did recognise some of my own bad eating habits in Pandora and Edison and did have a few of those “there for the grace of God go I” moments.
That Lionel Shriver has written a book that makes me uncomfortable isn’t a surprise (I still haven’t gotten over We Need To Talk About Kevin), and I did put off reading this until I was in the mood because I knew it would make me think but it just makes it a better book for me. The story is compelling, especially knowing it is based on her own relationship with her brother, and I couldn’t put it down once I started. Lionel Shriver has a dry wit and manages to get a message across without beating you over the head or talking down to the reader. I appreciate it isn’t to everyone’s taste but it is mine and, despite the subject matter, I really loved this book. Highly recommended!