Full House Reading Challenge – Big Brother by Lionel Shriver – Contains spoilers

Genre: Literary Fiction, Family

Narrative Style: First person narrative

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2013

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Pandora goes to pick up her big brother, Edison, from the airport, she doesn’t recognise him. He has become a literal big brother, that is he is extremely fat. Pandora’s husband is a health nut and when Edison starts to cook extremely unhealthy meals for everybody, things become tense. Then Pandora decides that something drastic needs to be done and moves in with Edison to help him shed the pounds. 

Reading Challenges – Full House Reading Challenge – Size word in title.

There is a lot that is good about this book. I always enjoy Shriver’s novels and the way she tackles big themes. Here, the thoughts on obesity and the way society eats its problems are dealt with in an interesting and emotional way. The characters of Pandora and Edison are complicated and realistically drawn. I did get fed up with Edison’s constant jazz talk but it was consistent with his character. It would annoy me in real life so it was nothing to do with Shriver’s writing.

The story starts when Pandora goes to pick Edison up from the airport to stay with them as he has nowhere else to go. There is already tension between Pandora and her health nut husband, Fletcher, about the visit. So when Edison arrives and he is 200 pounds heavier, you know there are going to be sparks flying.

The first section of the novel details this stay in all its gory detail. As Edison pours his heart into making massive, unhealthy meals, Fletcher becomes more and more controlling of his own intake.  No one discusses Edison’s obesity but ignore the problem so he becomes a literal elephant in the room. Fairly soon, things reach a breaking point.

When it becomes apparent that Edison has no prospects at all, Pandora decides to help him lose weight and they move in together, much to the annoyance of Fletcher. (If truth be told, it was hard to understand what Pandora saw in Fletcher. He could have done with a little rounding out, character wise.) They then embark on a miraculous diet which eventually sees Edison losing the required amount of weight. This section was interesting as it started to explore the reasons behind Edison’s weight gain. Edison becomes livelier and more like the brother that Pandora remembered from her youth as he loses weight. He becomes a metaphor for the way that society views fat people as not quite human. His humanity returns with his slimmed down body.

At the end of this section, they throw a huge party to celebrate Edison’s weight loss. All is going well until Edison realises that Pandora will return to Fletcher and he will be on his own. He begins to overeat again and quickly regains the weight. All through the novel, the nature of the sibling relationship is examined and compared with that of a married couple. In the end, Pandora realises that her relationship with Edison is unhealthy and returns to Fletcher.

This is where it all goes a bit wrong. Suddenly, Pandora begins offering different possibilities for Edison. Maybe he did this, maybe he did that and then we are into the final section of the book. Pandora then confesses that she didn’t move in with Edison and that none of that section was true. I know on some level it is stupid to complain about a writer selling you a lie but I find this particular narrative trick incredibly annoying. It’s a cheap trick. I can see the point Shriver was trying to make – Pandora feels guilty that she did nothing to help Edison so she concocts the fantasy to make herself feel better after his death. Also, it is a more realistic ending than the miraculous weight loss. Still, it had the feeling of being led up the garden path.

It’s a shame because I had been really enjoying this book. I couldn’t put it down but now all I am left with is the feeling of having been cheated.

 

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