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Big Brother

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For Pandora, cooking is a form of love. Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed high-end cabinetmaker, now spurns the “toxic” dishes that he’d savored through their courtship, and devotes hours each day to manic cycling. Then, when Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at the airport, she doesn’t recognize him. In the years since they’ve seen one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? After Edison has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: It’s him or me.

Rich with Shriver’s distinctive wit and ferocious energy, Big Brother is about fat: an issue both social and excruciatingly personal. It asks just how much sacrifice we'll make to save single members of our families, and whether it's ever possible to save loved ones from themselves.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published June 4, 2013

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About the author

Lionel Shriver

44 books3,776 followers
Lionel Shriver's novels include the New York Times bestseller The Post-Birthday World and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange Prize and has now sold over a million copies worldwide. Earlier books include Double Fault, A Perfectly Good Family, and Checker and the Derailleurs. Her novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She lives in London and Brooklyn, New York.

Author photo copyright Jerry Bauer, courtesy of Harper Collins.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,104 reviews
Profile Image for Donna P.
34 reviews17 followers
April 29, 2013
I am a big Lionel Shriver fan. I loved her books "Let's Talk About Kevin" and especially "So Much for That." So I was looking forward to reading her new book "Big Brother," particularly since it deals with an issue that (unfortunately) is near and dear to my heart - being overweight.

The story is narrated by Pandora - a forty-something woman who lives with her husband Fletcher and her two teenage step-children. Pandora's marriage is already strained by her husband's fanatical obsession with healthy eating and exercise. When her older jazz musician brother, Edison, moves in with them for a couple of months, her family life deteriorates further.

Edison, much to Pandora's shock, has put on 200 pounds in the years since she has seen him. In an effort to restore her brother to good health, Pandora moves out of her home and into an apartment with her brother. Together, they go on a crash liquid diet and begin a year-long adventure in weight loss.

There is certainly much to like in "Big Brother." Shriver writes insightfully about this country's obsession with weight loss and health. But I had some major problems with the book as well.

For one thing, I grew tired of Pandora. I feel like we spend way too much time inside her head. I also had difficulty believing she and her husband - who is pretty much a total jerk - were ever happy. And Edison is more of a cliche than a fully fleshed-out character.

But the biggest sin to me is the book's ending, which pretty much made everything you read up to that point meaningless. I was having a hard time enjoying the book before the last 20 pages, but the ending made me feel completely ripped off.

It is such a shame too, because a writer as talented as Shriver, dealing with such a universal subject, could have written a fantastic book. Instead, it was a bit of a letdown.
Profile Image for B the BookAddict.
300 reviews667 followers
February 9, 2020
If you have not read Shriver before , then start with this, her 2013 novel, Big Brother. Shriver seems to be less acerbic than she has in her previous novels:less outrage and shock are dealt by the writer's hand here.

Telephone calls which come in the middle of the night rarely are for good news. And when Pandora is woken with a call about her brother Edison, the same is true. Pandora, a successful business owner and Edison, a talented jazz pianist, have always been close. They have grown up in the limelight of their father, Travis Appaloosa's successful television series and drawn even closer after their mother dies when Pandora is 13. Edison is now a talented jazz musician in New York and Pandora's brainchild is the highly successful made-to-order Baby Monotonous 'doll' company. But during the phone call, Pandora learns that Edison is broke and needs a place to stay. She soon finds out that he is also no longer the Jeff Bridges lookalike that he once was so she is determined to help him shed some of his excess 200lbs. Pandora puts her marriage on hold and moves into an apartment with her brother and becomes his weight-loss coach. What follows is by turns sad and uplifting, funny and refreshing.

In Big Brother, Shriver takes a good hard look at the lives of children of television stars, modern society's fixation with the 'body beautiful' and gives some startling weight loss facts. This is a novel about the morbidly obese and it is the anonymity of the overweight and obese that, for me, makes this so sad. Morbidly obese people are not pitiful, they are human but they are pilloried whether we like to admit it or not. Equally, this novel is about the love between siblings; a bond which goes much deeper than many children without siblings can understand.

“We cover for you, we lie for you, we take the heat for you. We clean up your messes and mollify our parents for you. We never fail to come across with undying adoration, whether or not you deserve it, and we can't take our lives as seriously as yours.”

It is rare to have a hero like Edison but for me, he is a hero. It is not often you find a male character imbibed with such handicap, such loss in his life as you find here. It is how he owns and confronts to his problems which make him steal into my heart. In time, this may become my most favorite Shriver novel; she is not assailing me with politic vitriol nor disturbing me with harrowing parenting stories. And this is written about a subject Shriver knows only too well; it is widely documented that Shriver's brother Greg was morbidly obese although she refutes that Big Brother is biographical. This is one of the very rare novels which made me cry. I'd never imagined the social issues which obese people face. But what I learned most from Big Brother; next time you see an obese or very overweight person, do not look away – meet their eyes and acknowledge them like you mean it, after all they are still a human being. 4.5★

Reading I found interesting regarding Shriver and her brother Greg:


Shriver's newest novel is The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 published June 2016.
Profile Image for Diane Yannick.
569 reviews760 followers
June 28, 2013
This book disappointed me in so many ways. Pandora, the narrator, marries Fletcher a man who just happens to be an extreme health nut. Enter her brother, Edison, who has recently gained hundreds of pounds and will eat anything that doesn't run away from his fat fingered grasp. (Do you have to paint such broad strokes, Lionel?) The plot is absurd. I do understand that the author's brother died from obesity and that she wished she could do more. However, the way she "did more" in this story is ridiculous. Then, to make matters even worse, she uses this cheap plot device at the end that made me feel like I totally wasted my time reading the story.

I like to consider themes such as whether or not we can save people from themselves. This book just used that premise to allow the author to proselytize about the social stigmas of obesity. She used it as a platform for her personal beliefs. It might have been much more powerful if she had written her brother's story in a straightforward way.

Lastly, I'd like to disagree with all of the people who believe that she's a great writer. I think that her writing is convoluted and pompous. I could give a myriad of examples but I'll just pick two:

"After letting himself gorge himself into even more parlously poor health for two solid months, the while keeping my eyes timidly averted like a "mousy dishrag", the bossiness was refreshing."

"If we were driving exactly two blocks away, the journey stirred the same amalgam of optimism and anxiety as starting out on a poorly equipped slog of daunting distance during which conditions were bound to turn nasty, unanticipated obstacles could prove insurmountable, and rations-this much is certain-would grow perilously sparse."

Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews598 followers
September 3, 2018
Library Overdrive Audiobook....read by Alice Rosengard
plus, my already ebook copy which I own.

I absolutely love Lionel Shriver - yet there are still many books of hers I haven’t read - even though over the past few years - I’ve purchased several of her books I’ve missed. This wasn’t going to be my first choice ‘next’ Shriver book....but while on my way for searching something else - I downloaded “Big Brother” for kicks since it was readily available ( not the first time I’ve impulsively done this).
The only thing I remember hearing about this book - being completely honest here - is that is was a ‘dud’.... her ‘bomb’ book...’NOT GOOD’....so you can understand why this wasn’t high on my list to read. I had absolutely no idea what the story was about and no idea what the picture on the cover was about. “Big Brother”?.....isn’t that a reality TV show? Well, I thought this was a very engaging book. Perhaps not perfect....but definitely a STRONG 4 Stars....and worth reading.

So....I blindly started listening to this book.
Paul even got hooked into this narrator reading to us.....and honestly- he usually has a zillion other things to do than to get sucked into my fiction books on tape.

For starters....LIONEL SHRIVER IS A TALENTED - SAVVY- THOUGHT PROVOKING author! Had I forgotten how good she writes. She had so many killer-awesome sentences - I ‘had’ to open up my ebook and read her words - I almost wished I had the physical book. This woman gets us thinking!

So? What’s this story about? In a nutshell .... one VERY FAT ‘Loved’ brother......and his younger sister who tries to help him loose weight by taking matters into her own hands - creating a controlled weight loss environment. Dietary restrictions are extreme.
Yet -my ‘nutshell’ description is a trite simplified statement....it’s just not enough. It doesn’t convey the the emotions ABOUT NOT UNDERSTANDING OBESITY, the denial, the relationships within a family, addiction itself, the ‘walking on eggshells’ of suppressed communications, the huge food budget, food, from hunger from the lack of it.

Shriver’s protagonist- and younger sister to ‘Big Brother’, *Edison*, is named *Pandora* ( is that not a cool name?/!).
Pandora is 40 years old. Married - to Fletcher. She’s a stepmother to two teenagers.
She also has a very unique successful business making and selling novelty ‘dolls’....( I laughed...they were so creative!). Buyers paid big bucks for these dolls. Fletcher makes high-end custom furniture- but his business is much less successful.
Fletcher ‘is’ successful at being obsessively fit—he rides his bike hours a day and wouldn’t consider eating white flour.
Edison comes for a visit.....LONG VISIT. Pandora used to look up to her older brother...successful musician. The last time she saw him - 4 months ago - Edison was thin. How does a thin man become MORBIDLY OBESE in just 4 months? His first night with Pandora- her husband and teen kids had everyone in shock but nobody says anything is so raw & real. The next day at breakfast- well, ......I was shaking my head. What would I do? Could I do? It was a noticeable out-of-the-box-normal breakfast for this family.

Edison.....oh my .... I just need to say .... there were scenes with him in this novel that were so visual to me - TOO VISUAL - I can’t get them out of my mind easy......A FEW REALLY SHOCKING UNEXPECTED SCENES!
It ‘is’ a book about weight - dieting - (which becomes SUSPENSEFUL), .....
but this novel is about soooo much more: siblings - sibling responsibility? - intervention — ethical? - or damaging? .....

As for the ending of this book - I didn’t see it coming .....that’s all I’ll say!

But......what is REALLY SAD TO ME — [I had NO IDEA] .....
Although this is a fiction story .....it’s inspired by Lionel Shriver’s brother and his obesity-linked death.

4.5 Stars
Profile Image for Baba.
3,619 reviews986 followers
August 17, 2020
It's 21st century Iowa, and Pandora, in her 40s, running a profitable unique business, married to perfectionist, careful eater and fitness fanatic Fletcher, with his modern art furniture business not doing lickety-spit; and Pandora is step mum to his two kids. She hasn't seen her moderately successful jazz musician brother for 4 years, and when she sees him doesn't recognise at all, as he's become morbidly obese! How will this change how she treats her older brother who she has hero worshipped most of her life?

As ever Shriver's prose his peerless, as it is absorbing as she draws in to this first person, Pandora narrated tale of looking for something to really live for; of families and if there's a line past which we can't help them; and the impact of our nurture. A pretty engrossing and at times heartbreaking read with a finish which, I kind of saw as a cop-out, so'll be interested to hear / read what others think. Shriver (privileged political views aside), is such an awesome writer though, she just drags you in. 8 out of 12.
Profile Image for Lorri Steinbacher.
1,491 reviews50 followers
June 9, 2013
I will read anything that Shriver writes. I am completely tuned in to her sensibility. She always picks topics and themes that other authors tend to ignore or who will write about sensationally. Shriver does not shy away from politicizing or making bold statements, but she does so in such a matter-of-fact, specific (yet humanizing) that her books don't feel sensational. That she also takes her stories from her own experiences helps that along. I felt Pandora's revulsion when she picks her brother up from the airport, I felt Pandora's conflict between doing what was right for her brother, at times at great sacrifice to her family and it made perfect sense that the lengths to whcih she went to save her brother both failed and . The Post-Bithrday World remains my favorite Shriver work, but this pulls a close second.
814 reviews146 followers
October 24, 2013
2.5 - sometimes even 2.75

Reading this book reminded me of one of the worst dates I ever had. From the initial phone call, it was clear the guy had been around the block a few too many times (hence earning the name 'Burn Out Boy'), and the date, from his perspective, and then soon enough from mine, was over before it began. I don't know if it was boredom, desperation, or irritation, but I found myself slipping into this awful persona, using every big word I knew, giving intense answers to small talk questions, until he interrupted me mid sentence and said drolly, "So are you, like, really smart?"
Obnoxious, yes. But somewhat deserved.
Many times while reading Big Brother I wanted to shake Lionel, who, I feel, has not revisited her Kevin hayday with any of her subsequent (certainly not her previous) works, and say to her, I get it! I get it, ok? You're like, really really smart. I cite, for example (one of many):

"Brown with elegiac hints of yellow, cornfield dying for the October harvest slipped past my window. Overland electrical cables scalloped rhythmically by on creosoted poles, while globular water tanks on narrow stems glowed in autumnal sun like giant incandescent lightbulbs. The pastoral effect was blighted by big-box stores and strip malls ... Yet on pristine stretches the countryside expressed the timeless groundedness and solidity that had captivated me as a child ..."

DEAR GOD ABOVE. It's like one of my students writing, thinking that the more SAT words cramped into a sentence the better.

So, that's the first thing I want to say about this book, because in truth, even with an interesting premise (and this sort of had one), with writing like that, there's only so much you can enjoy it. And when she wasn't doing THAT, there was her other fall back writing method similar to Claire Messud's latest along with Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland whereby we are "treated" to the stiff, intense musings and overly detailed accounts of the highly annoying, cold and off putting heroine.
But anyway. The plot.
Shriver enjoys taking on hot button issues whether it's gun control or health insurance, and so enter 'My Feelings About Obesity Disguised (Sort of) as a Novel.' Similar to Lisa Genova, this book doesn't so much delve into characters and conflicts as it info dumps treatise after treatise with the occasional plot movement. In essence, Pandora is a middle age woman with a type A and frankly kind of revolting husband who is a health food maniac and biking enthusiast (such that his wife holds dearly onto her 30 extra pounds while also hating herself) and her two step kids (irredeemably obnoxious Tanner with glimmers of Kevin and Cody, very much reminiscent of the sniveling and annoying Celia) - she makes a living designing, of all things, little dolls with those pull strings who are special ordered to mimic someone (this apparently makes her rather wealthy which will come in handy soon). Self righteous husband Fletcher is not pleased when Pandora's big brother Edison decides to come "visit" - down on his luck as an out of work jazz musician, the visit is actually set for two months.
Pandora is shocked to discover that in the four years that she has not seen Edison he has in fact expanded to nearly 400 pounds. I give Shriver credit for whatever research or imagination she did to come up with the many details I would not have foreseen of hosting a morbidly obese person - whether its dents in the mattress or a fixation on sugar so strong that Edison is caught eating it straight up, or other things that I simply would not have thought of - but I do not give her credit for Edison as a person. He is selfish, immature, and downright annoying. Shriver decided to go the route of Reconstructing Amelia in imposing highly unlikely attributes on a subject she probably knows little about. In Amelia, the sad author thought, oh I bet teens speak in abbreviations like, all the time! And I bet a guy from England won't be believable unless he ONLY uses the words bloody, cheers, and rubbish! So, Edison once played jazz? Then 'What's for dinner' MUST become, "Yo, what's a hungry cat gotta do around here to score some eats, ya dig, man?' I mean, SERIOUSLY? He was already annoying, this was NOT helping.
Anyway, Edison's clumsiness as well as overall poor eating habits (translating into cooking very bad things for the fam) leads to inevitable tension, until finally he is set to leave. But suddenly Pandora feels a stab of guilt and proposes that Edison and she take up an apartment and go on a liquid, 580 calorie a day diet for a year and see if they can both lose their weight.
Well, what ensues is an admittedly interesting and insightful examination (though if it could have been a less direct one this would have been a much better book) of how both gaining and losing weight cuts both ways, and how we associate food with oh so many things. As someone who works out nearly daily and vacillates between 'No more processed food!' and 'Diet be damned and pass it here!' I am not exception to the tyranny that food, moderation, body image, and prejudices therein have insinuated in probably all of our lives (at least in a developed country where, frankly, it's a luxury to have such issues). But if I want to read an article or essay, I will - this felt so contrived, deliberate, and heavy handed that while I read it and wanted to continue, it was more out of faint curiosity than actual enjoyment.
Profile Image for GTF.
76 reviews100 followers
May 21, 2020
Despite 'Big Brother' finishing on a sad note, and dealing with sensitive issues like eating disorders and family disputes, it is still a more lighthearted story than her bestselling novel 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'. Shriver managed to pull off a more enjoyable novel without abandoning the serious element of her writing. In between the drama and humour, she writes intelligently about harsh realities, in a way that can have a profound sense of realization on the reader. And yes, her broad vocabulary - which some readers are ambivalent towards - features on almost every page of the book.

The only criticism I have is for the twist near the end. It was cheap and contrived, and come to think of it, the story could still have had the same ending and impact without the twist.
Profile Image for Susan Tunis.
820 reviews194 followers
December 28, 2012
High-concept and high-calorie

I’m a sucker for novels with high-concept hooks. I can summarize Lionel Shriver’s latest in just a few sentences. Pandora Halfdanarson, a married, mid-western entrepreneur, hasn’t seen her older brother in four years. Edison is a successful jazz pianist out of New York, and this is the longest they’ve ever been apart. A friend of his calls her, indicating that Edison’s fallen on hard times, and she invites him to come stay for a visit. At the airport, she fails to recognize him—in the time they’ve been separated, her brother has gained several hundred pounds!

That premise was all I needed to hear. Much like the eponymous brother, I gulped this treat down whole—and enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t feel a large need to summarize the plot further. Is there any more you really need to know? Here’s what’s awesome about the novel: with a premise like that, there were only a few outcomes to the tale that I could readily envisage. Ms. Shriver managed to truly surprise me.

This is, I think, the fourth novel dealing with morbid obesity that I’ve read in the past year or two. (For those who are interested, the others were The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, Bed by David Whitehouse, and Heft by Liz Moore, all of which are different, and all of which are recommended.) It’s sort of fascinating to see this cultural preoccupation at last seeping into our literature. I only wonder that it took so long.

Ms. Shriver first came to my attention years ago with the publication of the uber-intense We Need to Talk about Kevin. In the years since, I’ve been delighted to see that she likes to change things up. Her last novel, The New Republic, was a satire, for goodness sake! Big Brother doesn’t really remind me of any of her earlier works, except that she always seems to be drawn to a certain darkness. That said, this is really not a dark novel. Honestly, I’m not sure how to describe it as far as tone or genre, other than to say it’s a family drama, not merely about these adult siblings (and their relationship with their father), but also very much about the relationship between each sibling and Pandora’s husband and teenage stepchildren.

With Ms. Shriver, it goes without saying that you can expect lovely prose and exactingly-drawn characters. This tale moved quickly! I read it easily in a day. It’s a compelling story, and hard to put down. It’s like an episode of Dr. Phil you know you should turn off, but you just can’t look away. Edison is both sympathetic and deeply repulsive. More than anything, however, I come back to the novel’s ending. I imagine it being polarizing, but I found it inspired. While I have not read them all, this is my favorite of Ms. Shriver’s novels to date.
Profile Image for Joyce.
10 reviews1 follower
July 1, 2013
For the past several days I have recommended this book to family and friends, even though it contains a totally unrealistic description of how much heavy people eat, and how they eat it, and a dangerous selection of fad crash diet. I felt that the introspection on our fetishism over size/weight/food was sufficient to ignore the other. Today I finished the book, and I feel like the literature I have been consuming has been revealed to be maggot infested trash.
Shriver has her anti-hero consuming considerably more calories in coffee creamer per day than would be needed to support the weight she has him at, plus gorging on everything else. Spooning huge mouthfuls of confectioners sugar straight out of the box in such large amounts that he can't swallow them and it falls all over the front of him.
When his sister goes into seclusion with him to 'save his life', they go on an extreme liquid, low calorie, protein diet that would only be used ethically in a hospital setting for a person of his size and condition. Yet they manage to maintain this diet -without cheating- for a year.
In the end the author abandons any sense of compassion for the man who has successfully completed his diet, just as his sister abandons him, by setting the scene of him gorging on chocolate cake. Because that's what we fat people do. Yes we do, but we use a fork. We don't eat chocolate cake by the fistful, smearing it all over ourselves and wiping our hands down the sleeves of our expensive Italian leather coats.
As a journalist, I would have expected Shriver to at least attend a few Weigh Watcher's meetings before passing on a bunch of vicious caricature.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Carol.
834 reviews499 followers
June 25, 2013
If the issues of obesity and weight make you squeamish this is not the book for you. As a person who was much heavier than I am today, I found Big Brother an uncomfortable read. This however, did not keep me from reading on.

If you have a less than perfect relationship with a sibling this too might not be the book for you. Yet, Shriver's exploration of her main character, Pandora's closeness to her brother Edison and the scrutiny in which she examines the meaning of family, both familial and marital makes Big Brother worth reading.

Big Brother presents a somewhat easy plot. Pandora's brother Edison shows up on her doorstep, broke, down and out and to her utter amazement, overweight, not by just a few pounds, but hundreds. Obese would be the polite term, fat described his appearance perfectly. Once a svelte, good looking, jazz musician, with so much going for him you had to wonder how did this happen? What could she do to help her brother back to the person he used to be? Yes, a plan is devised, one that has consequences for all those she loves. There's her husband of just a few years, they are practically newlyweds, and his two children from a first marriage. The husband, Fletcher is a bit of a health nut when it comes to food, what I'd call uptight and controlling on the issue of eating well, so much so that his kids and he are at odds on the food front. Pandora herself also needs to lose a few pounds so there's lots of issues in this family on the psychology of food addiction, both the good and bad.

Shriver's dark humor is here, but less apparent to me in Big Brother. Or perhaps this humor is not as funny to me as it deals with body mass or massiveness in this case. There was one scene that seemed to go totally for the gross, not necessary in my opinion and did spoil the story a bit for me. Myself I would have written it a bit differently for the same effect. But I'm not the author and she chose to do it her way.

I liked Big Brother, then I disliked it as I was having trouble quite believing some of the actions of the characters, then I started liking it again and in the end I all out loved it, even considering that one scene. Big Brother deals with a complex subject and is one you'd like to talk about with a friend or anyone for that matter. A good story, one that will have me digging into self. Hungry, just what does that mean?
Profile Image for Jessica Buike.
Author 1 book25 followers
December 20, 2013
I had to stew on this for a few days before deciding how to rate this book.

Honestly, the entire first part was boring, and a lot of the language used throughout was completely unnecessary. I am all about utilizing the English language intelligently, but sometimes it's more impressive to read a book that is simplistically beautiful than one that feels artificially full of large words. In fact, I sometimes wondered if the author was just trying to hit a word count rather than make a point.

That being said, when you strip away the pretentious language and often unnecessary meandering of the author, there was an incredibly poignant and beautiful story that paints the stark reality of obesity in many modern families.

As someone who works a day job that is at the forefront of the obesity revolution (as a manager of a health club run by former Biggest Loser contestants), I've seen so many of the moments in the book first hand and realize the complexity of what fighting obesity entails.

Without revealing any spoilers, I was initially disappointed with the ending - but then I stepped back and realized that the ending was right for this book and made a good and yet sad commentary on the realities of our culture.

Overall, if you can get past the verbiage to the heart of the story, I think you'll enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Avanders.
434 reviews14 followers
August 31, 2014
Review based on ARC.

Anyone who was around me while I was forcing my way through this book suffered for my having to finish it. Why did I have to finish it? Because it was an advanced readers' copy, and I felt like I needed to finish the whole book in order to fairly review it.

But oh, the pain.
So, the premise. I was interested in this book and definitely wanted to read it because of its premise! (this is no more spoiler than what appears on the back cover) Main character (Pandora) picks up her brother (Edison) from the airport after not having seen him for several years and doesn't even recognize him at first because he's gained so much weight. On top of now being a morbidly obese person, the narrator also takes issue with her brother's other developed-habits, such as breaking furniture, convincing high school kids to drop out of high school, etc. So she has to decide between her husband and her brother, which is essentially what the book is about--that choice and the repercussions thereof.

Ok, yeah, sounds interesting! Good of her to take on a less developed theme in current literature and try to tackle the psychological reactions that people have in these types of tough situations. So I was excited.

Then I got the book and started reading. And this is what it was like: Imagine if I told you that a very interesting special was going to be on tv, but it was only going to air once and you couldn't record it because you don't have a DVR or anything. So you are excited about the special and are eager to get to the story, but as soon as it starts playing, your roommate just gets up and stands in front of the tv and starts waxing poetic about anything and everything---his/her opinions, theories, views on politics, social issues, his/her childhood, etc. Just keeps talking. And then they finally wind down and sit down and you are watching the special again, and just as you start getting into the special, s/he gets back up again and does it all over again. Over and over and over. That's what it was like reading this book. Shriver (or, purportedly, her narrator) just could. not. shut. up. shut up. shut up. It was infuriating attempting to read the story with the narrator constantly streaming her look-how-smart-I-am consciousness. And yeah, she had a few interesting things to say and said a few things in interesting ways, but I just couldn't CARE after she just kept GOING and going and going.

So around page 100, I decided I couldn't do it anymore. The book was literally giving me a headache and I was doing anything to avoid reading. I took a breather.

After ~a week, I decided, no, I can finish this. And so I did. Unfortunately, not only was Shriver's writing style infuriating, but her story was a disaster. This was one of the least convincing attempts at "understanding" fat people that I've ever been confronted with. It felt like Shriver literally knew NO-ONE who had ever really struggled with a lot of weight. And I understand that her real-life brother died from morbid obesity, weighing approximately what she puts her "big brother" at in the book, but it doesn't appear as if she spent any real time with her brother or talked to anyone who's ever spent substantial time around people who struggle with this kind of weight issue.

As someone with actual perspective here, I can assure the unknowing reader that Shriver is way off the mark. And it's offensive. And, frankly, it takes a lot to offend me. Shriver's fat guy is reckless, selfish, unaware, and stupid. Of course, because he's fat, right? It was a childish viewpoint and impossible for me to read without a scowl on my face.

So what's extra unbelievable about this whole thing is that Edison supposedly exhibits his I'm-a-disgusting-slob person while in the house of not only an essential stranger (his brother-in-law), but also while being openly judged and loathed by said-stranger. Fat people don't do that, Ms. Shriver. But yeah, supposedly, this guy will eat powdered sugar straight from the bag, but in the process just gets powdered sugar everywhere because of course he's a slob; takes a first serving at a first meal that is more than half of a casserole so that others are left hungry because of course he's hungry, stupid, and selfish; insists on making the rest of the skinny family inordinate amounts of terribly unhealthy food because he's inconsiderate, pushy, and stupid; etc.

And every single thing that "Pandora" (or, perhaps, really the author?) says about her brother, who she supposedly loves, comments on his fatness. Like, WE GET IT. HE's FAT. He doesn't just have a big jacket, his jacket is so big it is like carrying a sleeping bag. He doesn't just sit on furniture, he breaks it. Oh and of course he doesn't just sh**, he poops so much that there's literally poop chunks floating down the hall. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Not to mention the fact that his gaining just over 200 pounds in 4 years does not actually match up with what he supposedly eats in a day.

And this is all just in the first half of the book, and I haven't even touched on the celebrity childhood or her famous company, which she also insists on talking about ad nauseum. At page 176, I mistakenly believed it was going to get better. Something actually changed. It wasn't just going to be 400 pages of Shriver... er, Pandora judging fat people but pretending to care about them. So narrator has to make a choice... choose her jerk of a husband or her fat disgusting slob of a brother.

What choice does she make? How does it turn out? What're the spoilers that everyone is so carefully avoiding? Here's the non-spoiler answer: who. cares. Take it from someone who suffered through reading the whole thing... it didn't get better. It's not worth knowing. It's worse than pathetic. (if you really want the spoilers? go to bottom and highlight text to reveal)

In sum, I would recommend this book to literally no one. I would not recommend this book to anyone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unaware and offensive. I would not recommend this book to anyone who knows someone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unhelpful, patronizing, and offensive. I would not recommend this book to someone who knows no one who has this kind of weight issue because it will simply give them the wrong idea about how fat people are in the so-called privacy of someone else's home. Just say no. No.

ONE of five stars. A touch of credit can be given because she's poetic with her language.


I mean. really? People enjoy this?
Profile Image for Mme Forte.
898 reviews6 followers
September 11, 2013
I don't have time to get into all the things I disliked about this book, but here are a few. They're mostly about the language, but some are about the writing.
The relationships are woefully underwritten. I know nothing about the siblings' childhood that would lead me to believe they were, as they narrator insists, each other's crutches and very intertwined during a difficult time. She says they were, and we have to believe her.
I do not for an instant buy that they were so close as children and the narrator has now not seen her brother in enough time that she is shocked that he has become morbidly obese.
I don't buy the brother's explanation for his weight gain.*
I don't believe that parents in Iowa let their teenage kids swear like sailors.
If you are British author speaking in the voice of an American, talk like an American. We do not get "ratty"; we get cranky or grumpy or pissy. We do not talk about staying "on-side" with somebody. We do not commonly use "I'd" as a contraction for "I had" in a sentence like this: I'd no idea he was so unhappy.
The author has a tin ear for dialogue. I haven't read such stiff, stilted talk since the last Patricia Cornwell book I read.
Dropping the subjects of sentences does not make your characters seem more laid-back and casual; it just chops up the prose and ruins its rhythm. Sentences that read like Couldn't have done it; wouldn't have made sense are deadening in large, repeated doses.
Unless you are Charles Dickens, please do not attempt to write like Charles Dickens. Convoluted sentence structure like something out of "Little Dorrit" is not impressive. It is just confusing. For example, from p. 77: "Driven by this craving if not for a moral then at least for an accusation as a kind of mortality kewpie doll, even commonly honest people will reconfigure the mangle of the truth into a form that has pizzazz." WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? It doesn't make any more sense in context, believe me.
*Although I suppose since the whole conversation where he reveals it TURNS OUT TO BE A GIANT LIE, I suppose it's not subject to the same standards of truthiness as an authentic conversation would be. Who does she think she is, Ian McEwan? The "twist" ending is the only reason I kept reading this book and it turns out it's not a twist; it's a "Dallas" ending with a fat guy instead of a dude in the shower.
I'm sadly disappointed. I heard the author on NPR and was intrigued by her premise. Unfortunately, she seems to have bitten off more than she could chew, what with a marriage, a health problem that is also a social issue, a difficult sibling relationship, and a semi-troubled stepkid.
And who calls a business Baby Monotonous? Seriously.
Profile Image for Darlene.
370 reviews133 followers
October 2, 2017
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, Big Brother,and it was narrated by Alice Rosengard.

Lionel Shriver has become one of my favorite authors. Her novels are brutally honest, insightful and although she doesn't shy away from difficult topics, she writes about them with a great deal of sensitivity. In her novel,Big Brother, Ms. Shriver writes about obesity.... our culture's obsession with food, weight loss, the 'perfect' body type and perhaps most importantly, the emotional toll that obesity takes , not only on the overweight person, but on the members of the family. Obesity , because it is a condition which is easily observed by everyone and thus is a condition which is public and yet at the same time is intensely personal.

In this story, which takes place in Iowa (part of the 'bread basket' of America), we meet Pandora Feuerbach. Pandora, a middle aged woman, has a husband Fletcher, a stepson Tanner (17 years old) and a stepdaughter Cody (13 years old). Pandora is also a successful businesswoman. After running a successful catering business, called Bread Basket, for many years, she sold the business and started a business for which she became nationally famous... she created what became the latest craze in toys for adults.... the 'Baby Monotonous Doll'. 'Baby Monotonous' is based on the premise that all people have certain signature phrases.... people tend to repeat the same phrases over and over. 'Baby Monotonous' was created to 'gently' and lovingly' poke fun at these idiosyncrasies..... telling a loved one that not only do we love them, but they kind of drive us crazy, too. 'Baby Monotonous' became so hugely successful that Pandora had been featured in many national publications.

Pandora and her family , by all accounts, were living the American Dream... until the day she received the phone call. This phone call was from a friend of her brother Edison Appaloosa. Edison, living in New York, was a successful jazz pianist. According to the friend on the other end of the line,however, Edison was experiencing some unspecified personal problems and needed a place to stay until he could figure how what to do. It was arranged that Edison would fly to Iowa, where he would spend some time with Pandora and her family. Upon her arrival at the airport, Pandora was shocked and dismayed to see that her successful, tall and lean brother had gained hundreds of pounds. The rest of Pandora's family was just as stunned by Edison's weight gain ; but despite everyone's shock, nobody talked about Edison's appearance. In fact, nobody even mentioned it; and because of this, the tension in the family grew.... increasing each day and even more, when it became apparent that Edison's visit was going to have to be open ended. It became clear that he was no longer employed... he was broke and homeless. The tension increased between Pandora and Fletcher, who became tired of this houseguest who broke his delicate handcrafted furniture and who did not appear to want to make any changes in his life. Pandora was caught between her loyalty to and her love for her husband and her loyalty to and her concern for her brother's health.

The days continued to pass by in much the same way, until the day Pandora decided to return home from work earlier than usual. Upon arriving home, she was stunned to see Edison standing in the middle of her kitchen....
"Our wooden prep island was littered with bottles. The sides of the Karo were glistening. I recognized an ancient Christmas present that had slid to the back of the pantry: pecans and hazelnuts candied in a thick brown goo. That jar was empty and drooling, too. The honey was out. Bizarrely, a bottle of Indian lime pickle. Cranberry sauce. And this was all in addition to our confectioner's sugar, which Edison was spooning straight from the box."

The scene in the kitchen that day seemed to finally break the silence which had been growing since Edison's arrival. Sure, each of the family members had talked to each other and even argued about Edison; but the conversation about Edison's size and his problems were never discussed with Edison himself. Pandora finally acknowledged how surreal the situation had become.
"So far, no one .... had addressed my brother's dimensions head-on. I myself had not once alluded to Edison's weight to his face, and as a consequence, felt slightly insane. That is, I pick him up at the airport and he is so-- so FAT that I look straight at him and don't recognize my own brother, and now we're all acting as if this is totally ordinary.... That cliche not mentioning 'the elephant in the room' was taking on a literal cast."

Pandora decided that despite the objections her husband would have, she needed to find out not only what had been going on in Edison's life, but she needed to help him to lose the weight... even if it meant that her husband and stepchildren didn't understand or support her in what she was doing.

Ms. Shriver constructed a story so harshly realistic... so NOT politically correct that at times, it was difficult to listen to. But through the telling of Edison's and Pandora's struggles, we were presented with an unvarnished look at just what it's like to be an obese person and what it feels like to be someone who loves that person. She discussed openly the physical obstacles... seat belts that won't stretch far enough to lock in; the difficulty in finding clothes that fit; problems with maintaining good personal hygiene. She also discussed the emotional toll... both on the obese person and the person who loves him... having to act as if it isn't hurtful to have people stare and make rude remarks; and in Pandora's case, dealing with the disapproval of her husband and yes, even fighting her own feelings of revulsion.... not towards the person who was her brother, but the state his body was in. And Ms. Shriver accomplished all of this with honesty and also with a sense of compassion.

This story was, at times, startling but always thought provoking. The only thing I did not care for... or at least initially... was the ending. I did not see the ending coming and my first impression was that it seemed completely bizarre; but after thinking about this story for several days, I have come to view the ending in a different light. This story, although was about Edison's struggle with weight and all of the physical and emotional difficulties that go with it,.... was also about Pandoras struggle to balance her ties and loyalty to her family of origin with her ties and loyalty to the family she had created with Fletcher. In the end, which ties were stronger? You'll have to read the story to discover this for yourself. I definitely recommend this book... both in print and audio... and while you read, ask yourself.... can we ever truly save those we love from themselves?
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,394 reviews805 followers
June 9, 2013
This book is really a 4.5 The only reason it's NOT a 5, is that I had difficulty with the premise of the plot, which actually resolves itself in the last 15 pages. It's written in first person from Pandora's perspective. Pandora has an older brother who is a Jazz musician. He dropped out of high school when he was 17, moved to NYC to become famous. Which, he was able to do. Pandora is the middle child of a man who has a TV series in the 70's, somewhat like the Brady Bunch, only it's about a family of divorce. The father bases the show loosely on his own family. The children hate the show and become to loathe their father. At any rate, the book begins when Pandora's brother comes for a vista to her home in Iowa. Last she saw him, he was 5'11", handsome, and weighing 163 lbs. Now, he comes off the plane and she doesn't recognize him. He's 363 lbs and has lost 3 inches due to spine compression of all that weight. He is obnoxious and not very likable. He breaks furniture, eats them out of house and home, and encourages Pandora's 17 year old son to drop out of high school and follow his passion of being a screen writer in Hollywood. Pandora feels sympathy for him, and want to help him. She has a successful business and therefore has monetary means. The plot is that she is going to leave her two teenage children and her husband, get an apartment nearby, live with her brother for a year to help him lose his weight. All through the book, I kept thinking "send him to a fat farm! send him to a hospital that deals with the morbidly obese!" I couldn't fathom why a woman would leave her teens and husband to help this obnoxious man who did it to himself(even if he is her brother and they suffered during childhood). Yet, during the 353 pages, Shriver makes the reader see all the problems of the obese: how they got to their obese weight; what a devastating life it is; how society treats the obese; how truly difficult it is to lose weight. It makes the reader challenge some of societies own assumptions about weight, body image, and how we "see" the obese. Shriver is also very witty and writes incredibly well. In the last 15 pages, she clears up all my misgivings in what I will describe as a surprise ending. And the book does ask: can we really "help" the obese? Can you force someone to lose weight? Can someone that big really take the weight off and keep it off? How responsible are we to loved ones when they eat themselves to death? Can you "force" someone to be more healthy? Shriver begins the book with a quote: The dieting industry is the only profitable business in the world with a 98 percent failure rate" And it gets funnier and wittier from there………..
Profile Image for Debbie.
454 reviews2,891 followers
April 11, 2016
I almost shied away from this book because the topic of food addiction seemed too close for comfort. And I know that Shriver (who wrote one of my all-time favorites, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) won’t skirt around any controversial or uncomfortable issue--so in fact I was actually scared to read this book. What if the book made me feel worse about my weight and my relationship to food? I threw caution to the wind and began.
But I just about abandoned the book early on because an editor failed to slice out a huge boring and pointless discussion about a TV series that the main characters’ father starred in. I hate sloppy editing, and I hate it when the author wanders away from the plot just to hear herself talk. I pictured the book full of such useless sideshows.
And there is yet another reason I almost ditched the book: it’s a hard read for anyone who didn’t get above 700 on their SATs. You have to work to read this one—Shriver’s eloquent and brilliant prose hurt my head plus had me scurrying for a dictionary. Luckily, after a while I adjusted to her style and couldn’t put the book down.
Shriver is great at analyzing human behavior and looking at motives and actions we might want to ignore. The siblings’ love versus the married-couple’s love, for example, was an interesting and gutsy exploration. Cerebral, yes, but she portrayed amazingly real characters; I cheered them on as if they were friends.
And her take on America’s obsession with weight and food is thought-provoking. She has a great couple of pages describing the difference between the feelings of the “scrawnies”, the average-weight people, and the obese. So fascinating that I highlighted the text and will share it with friends. (And how interesting that, unlike the droning on and on about a father’s TV series--which almost made me stop reading--this author intrusion didn’t bother me a bit!)
The ending is shocking and brilliant. I could think of it as Shriver meanly manipulating us, but I prefer to think of her as winking at us after creating a masterpiece. I learned that Shriver had an obese brother who died of complications relating to his weight. That makes this book, and its ending, all the more poignant. This would be a great read for a book club. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Rose.
402 reviews30 followers
May 27, 2014
Lionel Shriver is obsessed with body weight, as a subject and as a personal demon. She reportedly runs ten miles a day and eats only one meal. In an early Shriver novel, The New Republic, the main character has slimmed down after a fat, miserable youth. In Shriver's most recent novel she tackles the subject of obesity head on, writing what at times seems to be a how-to book on weight loss. The main character, Pandora, is a successful business woman who has created a whimsical, internet-age toy company for grown-ups. She is the sister of a jazz pianist who has lost his mojo and gained about three-hundred pounds. Pandora decides to help her brother lose the weight -- even though he hasn't really indicated that he wants to -- and being, like the author, a striver, for awhile it appears that she may be successful. Pop culture references contribute to a cutesey atmosphere unredeemed by scenes dealing with the grim realities of family life and even one devoted to an over-running toilet that may be intended as transcendence through grossness (you know, like in The Corrections). But even the floating fecal matter fails to lend this novel imaginative depth; it is dispatched briskly and efficiently by Shriver in the person of her brisk, efficient narrator. The novel eventually breaks down into a kind of meta-fiction in which the earnest, well-meaning Pandora confesses that much of her tale has been lies of one sort or another. But that does nothing to redeem the magazine-article tone that seems to be Shriver's signature style. What this novel needs is not more narrative quirks, but some kind of soul.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Vonia.
611 reviews97 followers
November 6, 2017
Only Shriver could manage to do the "Oh, this was all a lie" ending, yet still have me liking the novel. Yes, I still like it. Typically, I would be fucking ready to kill someone. I can actually see why she did it this way. In an interview, which is included in the end of the novel, she says that when she decided to go with "option d", it changed how she wrote the book because she then wrote Part II as especially unbelievable. Of course, this being fiction, I bought it. Was therefore, superbly upset, ready to kill Shriver when I read Pandora's confession. But, given a little time.... I guess I realized it was actually a little genius. the alternatives, as she alluded to in the above interview, were pretty cookie-cutter, otherwise not a "Shriver novel" (Which I thought was quite cute coming from her).

This is, indeed, one of the very few well written, well-researched fiction books out there on the shelves on overeating, obesity, dieting, etcetera. Everything else is actually self-help, recipes, more of this country's dieting obsession.

As with all Shriver's novels, the best parts were the moral inquiries I will be turning over long after I turn over the last page. The primary one is, How far are we willing to go for our loved one? Familial? Parents? Siblings? Friends? Financially? How much time? Effort? Where will you draw the line? Of course, in my own life I have been on both sides of the line. There is no precise wrong/right answer in my opinion, per se, only vaguely times where it seems blatantly obvious that one should do something.

The other thing addressed was the social response to obesity; how everyone treated Edison. It was with pity and/or the opposite, always falling over themselves, always overdoing it. In a way, none of us can prevent this, as this is a natural response, almost in shock when we see someone of this size, but we can try to tell ourselves that we have no right to think of someone this way, for we have no idea the exact reason that they became this way.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Yes, I understand the response that this is preventable, etcetera, but like depression, like other medical diagnoses, which can show in other ways, none of us know these strangers' stories. Who are we to say how they became this way?

Pandora's decision, in the first place, to desert her husband for a year to live with her brother was ridiculous. Not to mention, after he had already lived with her family for two months? Who does that?????.... That is completely abnormal. If my husband did that, I would never take him back. Unbelievable. Therefore, I appreciated, yet did not appreciate how Shriver (purposely, no doubt) had Pandora's husband quite unlikable. Therefore, I also appreciated, yet not quite entirely, once I allowed myself to think outside the box, that Pandora actually never did this.

I also liked her exploration of food at both extremes. At the extreme dieting where Pandora & Edison were existing on flavor envelopes, then when they had to transition back to real food, where they discovered that it really was not that great. Obviously the other extreme was explored with Edision as he overate.

As a complete tangent, Pandora's business? That has been an idea I have always played with whenever I have talked with my friends. That I should make them this toy that has these pre-selected phrases as a gift someday. Now, everyone will believe me to have taken the idea from the best selling novel here. Thank You, Lionel Shriver!!!!!....

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
816 reviews
October 11, 2013
For years, I have thought Lionel Shriver was underrated as an author. I have sung the praises of the excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin and even recommended it multiple times to my most literary friend, Haley (even though she still hasn't read it. Jerk.). But despite Shriver's insightful turns of phrases that make me stop and reread them and her strong grasp of human nature, she has received only . . . the Orange Prize?!?!?! No one even knows what that is! In fact, I thought it was Dutch until I googled it.

So Big Brother came out and I dutifully put myself on the PCPL reserve list. And, when it finally became available, even though I have FOUR KIDS, including a newborn, I sacrificed precious free time, sleep time, and even not-so-free time (read: lots of take out around here lately) to read it. In the beginning, the book reminded me of everything I love about Lionel Shriver. She takes these topics I don't really care to read about (in this case, morbid obesity) and weaves this horrifying and gripping story together, all with characters I don't really like so much. It doesn't sound good now that I'm typing it, but I tend to favor books with complex or unexpected protagonists. But then! She totally pulled an Atonement at the end, which is my least favorite literary device ever. All that investment for a huge fake-out at the end. It was SUCH a disappointment.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
846 reviews
May 5, 2015
I really enjoyed this book throughout. Pandora, sister to has-been jazz musician, Edison, meets her brother at the airport - and almost walks right past him - he’s about 165 pounds heavier than she remembered him (90kg, for those of us who work best in metric). After initially turning a blind eye, she appoints herself as his personal weight loss coach.

As a dietitian, some of Pandora’s weight loss ideas make me cringe a little, however at least she involves a GP, at least at the start. Shame she didn’t take Edison along to a dietitian... But despite some of the more questionable ideas, and despite knowing that it’s just a story, I was cheering Edison on, and inspired by his and Pandora’s attitudes.

Now when I get carried away eating mindlessly or am considering putting myself in a position which lends itself to mindless eating (yes, even dietitians get distracted from time to time while eating!), I think of Edison and his easy slide into carrying an extra 90kg, and it pulls me up sharply!

However, there were 2 twists at the end, neither of which did I see coming and which left me rather gob-smacked! I don’t want to say too much and spoil it for others, but when I think about the book, I’m still feeling like I’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath me!
Profile Image for Anne .
455 reviews376 followers
August 17, 2013
This is the first book I have read by Lionel Shriver. I started reading it with huge expectations based on rave reviews of this and earlier works. Perhaps that set me up to be disappointed.

The main protagonist and narrator of Big Brother is Pandora, a name that means, "gifted," and/or "the all-giving." (See Wikipedia). The novel is a play on these terms: on how important it is to be gifted (or not), all-giving (or not). It uses the story of Pandora and her titular "big brother," to address these themes.

Worthy themes for any novel. But for me, the story just wasn't "big" enough to really deal with them or interesting enough to hold my attention. I eventually became bored with and irritated by the main characters. There are glimpses of good writing, but overall, I had had my fill of this book well before it ended.

Profile Image for Victoria.
2,512 reviews55 followers
March 30, 2013
Wow! A few years ago, I first became acquainted with Lionel Shriver’s writing after reading We Need To Talk About Kevin. I think I read it in just one sitting - completely blown away by her storytelling skill. As the years have passed, more of her titles have joined the ranks in my To-Be-Read stacks, but this is this novel’s intriguing premise made me unable to resist immediately reading it.

The book opens with Pandora’s older brother, Edison, and his impending and prolonged stay at her Iowa home. Once a handsome jazz musician, Pandora does not recognize her brother when he disembarks from the plane. In the four years since their last visit, Edison has gained hundreds of pounds, What ensues is the surprisingly gripping story of more than just food, weight loss and weight gain, but mainly a story of familial bonds. It is a thought-provoking (if a bit manipulative) novel. Shriver writes with an authentic realism that places the reader immediately in the story. It is at times exhausting, heartbreaking, hilarious, disgusting and heartwarming. It is an incredibly well-written and completely absorbing read. And though other novels have tackled these topics before (The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens, She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb, The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty), Shriver’s take is certainly a unique one. And one that will surely incite a lot of good discussion. I am looking forward to reading more of her novels!
Profile Image for Carol.
314 reviews2 followers
November 5, 2013
One of the other reviewers here wrote that this was a bunch of the author's own feelings about fat people disguised as a novel. I couldn't agree more. The main character, while admitting that she herself has an extra thirty pounds to lose, doesn't hold back on the criticism of her fellow Americans, whom she accuses of forgetting how to eat and gorging themselves while blissfully ignorant of their expanding middles, but the worst treatment is reserved for Edison, the morbidly obese character, who is little more than a caricature of every cruel stereotype of an obese person (lazy and busy stuffing their face whatever unhealthy food is in reach.) Oh, the paces this poor guy is put through from broken chairs to the excrement scene...
I stuck with this in the hopes that the ending would shed emotional depth on the characters the way the ending of We Have to Talk About Kevin did, but alas it didn't. Like your cold Aunt Millie who clucks her tongue about the shame of your beautiful face hidden under that fat, this book holds out love for Edison until he begins to lose weight. Then and only then could Edison be granted full character status, including a sense of humor (paraphrasing: "Boy sis, at my highest weight I could have been a sandbag!" *Harhar sigh*) I so wanted to root for Edison to escape this abusive partner of a book and strike out into a world that could have dealt with his depression in a supportive way.
Profile Image for Kyle.
749 reviews22 followers
June 6, 2014
I loved this book. I found the characters to be so well defined and I loved the simple plot of one woman finding herself stuck between two, contrary ideologies.

Lionel Shriver usually impresses me though. she finds relevant subjects to write about, timely, as if they had been ripped right out of that morning's headlines. and then, she doesn't jus show two sides to the story, she shows MANY sides. Sides to the story that I had never even thought about.

Of course,the topic of obesity is a touchy one, much like cancer, because it is getting tough to find a person that is not somehow personally touched by someone else in their lives (or themselves) who is struggling with it as an affliction. Alas, we have all developed an opinion on the topic, usually one fuelled with emotion and personal observance, and quite a few of us are evangelical about expressing our opinion. So, the points of view that Shriver expresses through her characters may not be perfectly in sync with everyone's; however, I think she does an amazing job at capturing some of the more common opinions on the topic.

I thought she took this issue and heightened it to be dramatic and funny and sympathetic and challenging. Its not a book that sugar coats the issues, and I for one appreciate that.

Profile Image for nomadreader (Carrie D-L).
409 reviews71 followers
February 8, 2014
(originally published at http://nomadreader.blogspot.com)

The backstory: Lionel Shriver is an author whose work I've enjoyed immensely in the past. After raving about So Much For That (I gave it 5 stars), I also enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin (I gave it 4.5 stars) and The New Republic (I gave it 4 stars.) I'm utterly fascinated with both her work and her as a person, because her books and characters are so distinct.

The basics: Big Brother is the story of Pandora, who grew up in Los Angeles with a father who starred on a popular 1970's family sitcom with parallels to her life. She now lives in Iowa with her husband Fletcher, a health nut, and his two children. When her brother Edison, an accomplished jazz pianist, arrives for a visit, Pandora cannot believe how obese her brother has become.

My thoughts: I didn't realize this novel is set in Iowa until I began reading it, and it was a treat. From the point of view of this Iowa transplant, Shriver nailed the details, the positive and the negative, of everyday life in Iowa. Pandora, too, is a fascinating character. Life so many Shriver narrators, she is somewhat brash, refreshingly honest and insightful, and beautifully formed. I did, however, chuckle at her use of the phrase "But, to my horror," because I could imagine almost any Shriver character using that phrase, despite their differences. What Shriver characters also tend to have in common is a clear view of both the world and themselves.

In addition to the fascinating character of Pandora, a woman I'm not sure I would actually want to be friends with, but one who fascinates me, is the powerful theme of family and obligation. As a stepmother and wife, Pandora in some ways feels she owes her brother more than her husband and his family:

"He's a sponger you're related to by accident. I'm your husband by choice. If you 'love' that loudmouth it's a kneejerk genetic thing; I'm supposed to be the real love of your life."

This tension is palpable throughout the novel, and it's one I keep coming back to. In most cases, of course, it's not a choice. Your 'chosen' family and the family you were born with can peacefully coexist. But how does it feel to have to choose, on some level, between the two? Shriver explores these ideas beautifully through Pandora, Edison and Fletcher. Each character's perspective makes sense, and their conflicting thoughts and feelings are beautifully realized.

Yet as fascinated as I was with these characters, they never seemed quite real to me. As I read, I got caught up in the ideas more than the stories themselves. I couldn't shake the sense that Shriver had an agenda and is more interested in making her readers think than in telling a story. I'm not opposed to either, but this novel often felt more like an exercise in thinking than a captivating story. Shriver's writing and observations are often profound and challenging, but I can't quite shake the feelings of being somewhat manipulated as I read.

Favorite passage: "If I held few opinions, I did cling to a handful--like the view that facts are not the same as beliefs, and that most people get them confused."

The verdict: I appreciated Big Brother more once I finished it. Is it an accomplished, intelligent, thoughtful novel? Absolutely. Is it one I will continue to think of and ponder? Yes. Was it a novel I loved while reading? Not always. Ultimately, it's a novel I appreciate and respect far more than I enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,188 reviews1,689 followers
April 9, 2013
It is no accident that I read Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother almost directly after Michael Moss’s excellent non-fiction book Salt Sugar Fat: how the Food Giants Hooked Us. Through a feat of investigative reporting, Mr. Moss painstakingly revealed how companies use salt, sugar and fat to addict us and linked his findings to the emerging obesity epidemic.

So here is Lionel Shriver, putting a face on the back-stories and statistics. The face is that of the once handsome and charismatic Emerson Appaloosa, the musically talented big brother of our narrator, Pandora – who is now edging up to 400 pounds. Pandora and Emerson are the offspring of a serial T.V. star and are also, as adults, navigating the fallout from a dysfunctional childhood.

When Emerson travels from New York to Iowa, he interrupts the rhythm of Pandora’s carefully crafted life: she is the founder of a high-profile niche business, the wife of a self-employed one-of-a-kind cabinetmaker and the stepmom of two teenagers. To save her brother, Pandora makes a bold choice: to find an apartment, move in with Emerson, and act as his coach for a year while he loses weight. And the novel goes on from there.

Lionel Shriver makes some profound observations about food in our lives and all the ways it can distort us. Pandora’s husband, for example, is a rigidly disciplined, self-satisfied man who eats food only as fuel for his body – not for enjoyment. At one point, a character teeters on anorexia in a foray of self-denial. Lionel Shriver writes, “No meal, no matter how nicely prepared would resolve what to do with your life on either side of chow.”

In another instance, Pandora reflects, “I believed – and could not understand why I believed this, since I didn’t believe it – that the number on the dial was a verdict of my very character. It appraised whether I was strong, whether I was self-possessed, whether I was someone anyone else would conceivably wish to be.” The book is strongest when it explores the issues that surround the simple act of eating: how it becomes part and parcel with one’s sense of self and how it takes on an overinflated importance that has nothing to do with hunger.

But ultimately, the novel has to function as a novel, and here is where the book fails for me. Lionel Shriver is a strong writer – no doubt about that. But all too often, I sensed authorial intrusion: it was as if I were being educated as to what to think about this issue. The characters, in other words, became mouthpieces for Lionel Shriver’s own beliefs.

More problematically, it was a stretch to accept that Pandora would risk her marriage and livelihood to move in with her brother. Her husband, Fletcher, reasonably suggests that she rent him a place nearby; that is unacceptable to her. Her decision—choosing between her birth family and her created family—needed, in my opinion, needed a bit more fleshing out.

The ending has been alluded to by reviewers, yet not revealed. Suffice to say that it will either work for you or it won’t. I cannot get into the debate without spoilers and so I won’t. But it was another factor for me in determining my rating. I definitely wanted to keep on reading but I can’t say I swallowed the premise.

Profile Image for Krystelle Fitzpatrick.
609 reviews31 followers
May 21, 2020
Opinions, as I have heard said, are like a certain part of the human anatomy used for less than pleasant purposes- everyone has one. It’s just that most of us don’t write novels with ill-informed diatribes to get the point across. Most of us keep those opinions to ourselves. Sadly, not Lionel Shriver. And boy, am I disappointed.

I loved ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, but it seems my appreciation was flawed on two fronts: a. I truly believed that the voice used for the mother in the book (patronising and superfluous at best) was a brilliant character choice and b. That the social commentary provided was something I could come to expect from the author. It turns out that voice is actually just how she writes, pretension dripping from every phrase, and that the social commentary was a brilliant hit in a field of misses.

I had a feeling about it going in- I knew it was going to likely be sketchy, but I didn’t know how bad. I’d recently read another very opinionated article from her regarding political correctness, and seeing the blurb for this book made me feel like it could only go south. And so, it did.

As much as Shriver tried to make Edison a walking stereotype to be deplored by the audience, I grew a little attached to him (even if he did speak in a rather ridiculous fashion). Pandora was a strange, cardboard cut-out of a woman though, with little development and a rather Mary Sue vibe coming off her. I’m still kind of mad about all the things Shriver threw at Edison just to make him look worse, more embarrassing, and more dehumanised.

But then there’s the ending. I don’t know about you, but in high school, I was taught that to end a book with ‘it was all just a dream’ was literary suicide. Shriver commits this rather bizarre seppuku in the final twenty pages of the novel, erasing all the characters and what little enjoyment I did derive from the book. It was going to be two stars- the ending bumped it to a one. To target someone so obviously plagued by the spectre of BED and then ridicule and lampoon them to a point where they’re only human if they’re thin is already detestable- to reiterate Edison wasn’t worth saving just made it even worse.

This was a tirade, little more, and it didn’t constitute a novel. Perhaps Shriver should follow the lead of that aforementioned body part and cover up those opinions wherever possible.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,694 reviews595 followers
May 12, 2013

Pandora Halfdanarson lives with her husband, 'food fascist' Fletcher, and her two teenage stepchildren in Iowa. She runs a successful business with her fantastic Baby Monotonous Dolls ( I hope the author has patented the idea,they would be sure to be a real life success) and is something of a rut when we meet her. Pandora's childhood was somewhat unusual - her father was in a successful television show and all the members of her family are either distant or no longer alive, apart from her adored elder brother, Edison.

At the beginning of this novel we learn that Edison is coming for his first visit in four years. Pandora is expecting Edison to drive Fletcher mad. She is anticipating his never ending stories about life as a jazz pianist - name dropping and exaggerating. What she is not expecting is the fact that somehow, between visits, he has become obese...

This book is about many things. It is about how we view and relate to food, our obsession with weight, addictive behaviours, responsibility, marriage and family. As a story I could not put it down and that is the main thing - this is just a fantastic read. Pandora is just a wonderful character, so torn between her family and her ties to her brother and the history they share. It would be brilliant for book groups with so much to discuss and an ending you will think about for a long time. This is a real roller coaster of a book; about how society judges us, how we judge ourself and the difficult relationship so many people have with food. A truly great novel which I recommend highly.
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