Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, Big Brother, is oddly compelling while also being borderline repelling and disgusting.  Which says a great deal, because although it is fiction, it sheds a lot of light on societal issues that are occurring in our everyday lives.

Big Brother follows Pandora, a middle aged woman who is married and has two step children to a man, Fletcher, who is unrelenting and rigid in his diet.  Living in Iowa, she tries to live an unassuming, ‘boring’ life, despite also running a highly successful start-up business (selling personalised pull-string dolls of all things). And then her brother comes and stays with her in town.

Pandora hasn’t seen her brother Edison in four years, and she has distinct memories of him as a tall, lanky, handsome jazz musician, who, while talented, is also arrogant and youthful in his ways.  So it’s a massive shock for Pandora when she goes to pick him up from the airport and she barely recognises him.  See, Edison has put on weight.  Hundreds of pounds of weight for that matter.

For the next two months, Pandora tries to avoid the elephant in the room (almost literally), playing peacemaker between the boorish Edison and the uptight Fletcher.  Although initially assuming that Edison will soon to be off on an international tour, she discovers that he’s going back to nothing…and is very likely to eat himself to death.

Making the hard decision, Pandora convinces Edison to stay in Iowa and move out with her so that she can join him on a ‘get thin fast’ program, which leads to her marriage and her family life going into turmoil.

Obesity is an issue that effects 1 in 3 of us, although you could easily argue that it effects all of us, with its influence on fashion, media and society in general.  Only recently it was reported that in the US they’re fighting for obesity to be recognised as a disease.  Yet despite this, most of us fail to handle it.

Many people with obesity have eating disorders, or depression, or other insidious problems that cause them to overeat.  Some people have legitimate medical issues.  And while fat-shaming is the last thing that will help those who are overweight, and despite the fact that we’re getting larger as a nation, more and more of us crave to be thin and look down on those who are not.

So, quite obviously, obesity and the effects that it can have on family is a current topic.  However, on top of that, the author, Lionel Shriver, also has a borderline-autistic brother who himself was dealing with morbid obesity.  So it’s no small guess as to why she chose to write Big Brother.

While reading the book definitely turned me off the junk food (for small periods of time, there’s only so long I can go without chocolate), Edison’s weight wasn’t his biggest turn-off for me; it was his personality.

Perhaps it was different because it was a novel, and therefore I had to actively visualise Edison to remember his size, but what I couldn’t get past was his horrendous behaviour.  For the first section of the novel, we witness how he continually antagonises Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, who is written to be a food nazi who is uncompromising and steadfast in his ways.  As a result, he doesn’t get alone with Edison, the large slob who won’t say no to anything (food related that is).

Except, hang on.  Edison is actually rather awful.  He makes huge, unhealthy and unnecessary meals that no one can possibly eat, or wants for that matter.  He leaves his washing lying around, doesn’t help out around the house, and boorishly describes his jazz-antics from ‘back in the day’, that he knows nobody is really interested in.  So why are we surprised when Fletcher doesn’t want him in his home?  Regardless of size, if I had an impolite, obnoxious slob of a guest staying at my house for 2 months, I’d also probably be keen for them to leave.

Then there were the continual references to the sibling bond between Pandora and Edison, which was both accurate and inaccurate (and at times contradictory).  There were many points that Shriver made that I agreed with, such as the unspoken truce between siblings (particularly against parents), the inside jokes and laughs, and the compelling need to always, always give them the best.  These I couldn’t agree with more, and I’m sure those who have siblings probably agree too.

But then there were aspects, which were pivotal motivations for the plot, that I just couldn’t believe.  Firstly, I found it unbelievable that Pandora, at no point, told Edison to pull his head in, clean up after himself and make an effort with her husband.  Not once.  If that were my household and my sister were doing what Edison did?  Well, actually, I live with my sister, and trust me, when she leaves stuff lying around, I make it quite apparent I’m not going to be cleaning up after her.

Secondly, Pandora has this notion that there is no end to what she has to give to her brother, whether that’s time, money or patience, because he’s family and that’s how it works.  While there is a slight reference in Big Brother that alludes to why she thinks this way, I still thought it was a lazy excuse to cover a plot hole.  I think that siblings, along with parents, have the ability to say no, while still making it very apparent that they love and care for them.  Not let their brother get away with treating them like dirt because he can.

Saying that, Shriver has beautifully written Big Brother that delicately explores the nuances and complications of dealing with someone who is morbidly obese.  She writes her characters so that their reactions, conversations and problems are realistic (probably because she lived through a lot of them herself), and in turn ask us to wonder how we ourselves would react in that situation.  Would we put ourselves and our marriages on the line to essentially save a loved one, even if it were their own fault in the first place?  Would we treat them differently because of their physical appearance?  Could we avoid the truth of why they’re morbidly obese, and the sad reasons behind the transformation?

Finally, I appreciated the ending of Big Brother, which, while a surprise and definitely unexpected, was also quite accurate, not to mention poignant.

What I really like about Shriver’s storytelling is that she often tackles pretty heavy issues (a la not loving your son because he is a sociopath) without over-dramatising them(unlike numerous other authors that I can think of).  Instead of pointing the blame, or creating unnecessary drama, she thoughtfully constructs characters and situations that, while not likeable, are imaginable.  Her novels often deal with present day issues, and as a result, cause us to question what we believe in and what we would do ourselves in that position.

Big Brother is no exception to this.  Shriver explores the effects, misunderstandings and contributions of obesity, an issue that is affecting more and more of us, in a way that is realistic, thoughtful and yet not demeaning in any way.  In the society that we live in, and the pressure that we put on each other for our appearance and our looks, Big Brother is an intelligent and refreshing perspective, and I would encourage anyone to read this novel.

Have you read anything by Lionel Shriver?  Have you read Big Brother? What did you think?  Let me know!

big brother by lionel shriver

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver – (image taken from