Big Brother

By Lionel Shriver

(HarperCollins, $26.99, 373 pages)

Who is this author?

First things first: despite her masculine-sounding name, Lionel Shriver is a woman, and a powerful writer with a knack for choosing timely subjects. Born Margaret Ann to a Presbyterian minister in North Carolina, she changed her name to Lionel, feeling it better suited her personality. She has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Northern Ireland and now has homes in London and Brooklyn. She has acquired British citizenship. Shriver once taught metalsmithing at Buck’s Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp in New Milford, Connecticut.

Her novels include the National Book Award finalist “So Much for That,” which explored the convoluted – some might say insane – world of American health insurance. Her eighth novel, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” (2003) was a prescient, horrifying novel about a teenage killer involved in Columbine-like murders. It won the prestigious British literary award, the Orange Prize.We can only wish Adam Lanza’s parents had read it, in time.

She also is a journalist, whose features, columns, op-ed pieces and book reviews appear in the Guardian, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, the Economist, Marie Claire, and other publications.

More to know about Shriver:

“I read every article I can find that commends the nutritional benefits of red wine — since if they’re right, I will live to 110.”

“Though raised by Aldai Stevenson Democrats, I have a violent, retrograde right-wing streak that alarms and horrifies my acquaintances in New York. And I have been told more than once that I am ‘extreme.’ “

“As I run down the list of my preferences, I like dark roast coffee, dark sesame oil, dark chocolate, dark-meat chicken, even dark chili beans — a pattern emerges that, while it may not put me on the outer edges of human experience, does exude a faint whiff of the unsavory.”

What is this book about?

Pandora lives in Iowa, makes custom-designed dolls and loves to cook. Her husband Fletcher, a woodworker and obsessive exerciser, loves to fuss about what he eats. When Pandora’s jazz pianist big brother, Edison, arrives for a visit after a four-year absence, she fails to recognize him at the airport because he has grown hugely, morbidly, outrageously fat, having been using food to comfort himself when his marriage and career go bad.

Edison moves in and  wreaks havoc on Pandora’s world. He’s so big he breaks the handmade furniture Fletcher has made, cooks huge meals and talks her son into dropping out of high school. Not surprisingly, Fletcher gives Pandora the “it’s him or me” speech.  Very surprisingly, Pandora opts to move in with Edison to make a last-ditch, heroic effort to help him lose weight and regain control over his life. She is willing to try to be her brother’s keeper, in the literal sense, but is that possible or even probable? Shriver makes us care in this provocative and prickly book.

Why you’ll like it:

Anyone who has ever struggled with weight issues or has been close to someone who has will appreciate this story. But it is not an inspirational, feel-good, eat-this-but-don’t-eat-that novel. Instead, it delves deep into the complex relationships we have with loved ones and the many ways we use food to assuage pain we can’t otherwise deal with. This novel asks disturbing questions: Are we all addicted to something? Can we rescue a loved one who is not seeking help? Can we ever fully understand our own motivations or, for that matter, anyone else’s? This is not a comforting book, but it is an intriguing one.

What others are saying:

In The Washington Post, Jeff Turrentine says: “As a writer, Shriver’s talents are many: She’s especially skilled at playing with readers’ reflexes for sympathy and revulsion, never letting us get too comfortable with whatever firm understanding we think we have of a character.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Shriver returns to the family in this intelligent meditation on food, guilt, and the real (and imagined) debts we owe the ones we love. Ex-caterer Pandora has made it big with a custom doll company that creates personal likenesses with pull-string, sometimes crude, catch phrases. The dolls speak to the condition of these characters—all trapped in destructive relationships with food (and each other): Pandora cooks to show love, to the delight of her compulsively fit husband Fletcher, whose refusal to eat dairy or vary from his biking routine are the outward manifestation of his remove. Pandora’s brother Edison eats to ease the pain of a stalled music career and broken marriage. And both live somewhat uncomfortably in the shadow of their father’s TV fame. In “Big Brother,” nothing reveals character more scathingly than food. Early in the book, the nearly 400-pound Edison arrives—waddling through an Iowa airport with a “ground eating galumph”—a man transformed in the four years since his sister last saw him. He brings the novel energy as well as an occasionally unpalatable maudlin drama. But Pandora will risk everything, including her own health, to save him. If this devotion and Pandora’s increasing success with Edison’s diet plan sometimes seem chirpily false, a late reveal provides devastating justification.”

Says author Jincy Willett in The New York Times Book Review:  “Shriver understands that hunger is one thing for those who are literally starving and a very different thing for the rest of us. No matter how much we have, we’re never content…”Big Brother” is about “the baffling lassitude of affluence” — the hard truth that “however gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse.”

“A woman is at a loss to control her morbidly obese brother in the latest feat of unflinching social observation from Shriver. …Pandora, the narrator of this smartly turned novel, is a happily settled 40-something living in a just-so Iowa home with her husband and two stepchildren and running a successful business manufacturing custom dolls that parrot the recipient’s pet phrases. Her brother, Edison, is a New York jazz pianist who’s hit the skids, and when he calls hoping to visit for a while, she’s happy to assist. But she’s aghast to discover he’s ballooned from a trim 163 to nearly 400 pounds. Edison can be a pretentious blowhard to start with, and his weight makes him an even more exasperating houseguest, clearing out the pantry, breaking furniture and driving a wedge in Pandora’s marriage. So Pandora concocts a scheme: She’ll move out to live with Edison while monitoring his crash diet of protein-powder drinks. The book is largely about weight and America’s obesity epidemic; Shriver writes thoughtfully about our diets and how our struggle to find an identity tends to lead us toward the fridge, and she describes our fleshy flaws with a candor that marks much of her fiction. But the book truly shines as a study of family relationships. As Pandora spends a year as Edison’s cheerleader, drill sergeant and caregiver, Shriver reveals the complex push and pull between siblings and has some wise and troubling things to say about guilt, responsibility and how what can seem like tough love is actually overindulgence. The story’s arc flirts with a cheeriness that’s unusual for her, but a twist ending reassures us this is indeed a Shriver novel and that our certitude is just another human foible. A masterful, page-turning study of complex relationships among our bodies, our minds and our families,” says  Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

Shriver’s book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Ropkins branch.

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