Book Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

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I chose to read Big Brother by Lionel Shriver entirely based on having read We Need To Talk About Kevin (which I won’t say I enjoyed – the subject matter makes that impossible – but which was well written and extremely powerful).

Big Brother is the story of Pandora, an average woman who has fallen into a business that she doesn’t have a passion for. When she hears her New York-based brother, Edison, has fallen on hard times, she invites him to stay with her, her husband and two stepchildren in Iowa. But when she meets him at the airport, she almost doesn’t recognise him because he weighs 200 pounds more than when she last saw him. And so begins Lionel Shriver’s commentary on a weighty issue.

The subject matter itself wasn’t especially my cup of tea but I respect Lionel Shriver as a writer and was prepared to take this journey with her. But the longer the story went, the more I started to wonder how this story could end. Pandora decides to help her brother lose the weight, meaning there can only be two possible endings to the story – he succeeds or he fails. Either way, neither ending would be much of a surprise.

Shriver solves this problems with an ending that I think ultimately I should have seen coming but didn’t, which is a tribute to her abilities to construct stories. In order to get there, we meander through themes of the city/country divide, obesity, addiction, judgement and familial bonds with the help of characters that are realistically drawn out. Pandora, doing a job she has no passion for but a commercial success and a reluctant media darling. Fletcher, her husband, doing a job he is passionate about but unable to financially support his family while doing it. Edison, a has-been jazz musician who can’t seem to look forward, only back, who can’t understand that he might have to get a “real job” if the music industry doesn’t want him anymore. Tanner, Pandora’s 17-year-old stepson, who is convinced he doesn’t need to finish high school, that he’ll be able to make it as a writer, that he is special (in the way that so many people think of themselves these days until reality convinces them otherwise).

While not as powerful a story as We Need To Talk About Kevin (perhaps serial killer versus self killer through food addiction is the reason why – there’s nothing sexy about obesity), Big Brother is worth the read, if only so you can experience the ending, which is where the genuinely thought-provoking moments happen. And you can only experience the ending, and I mean fully experience it, by having read it all in sequence – there’s no cheating this.

I wil certainly continue reading Lionel Shriver’s works and in my opinion that’s the best endorsement any book can have.

4 stars

*Originally published on Goodreads 4 April 2015

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