Watching How He Eats: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver @HarperCollins

cover image of Big BrotherDon’t plan on snuggling up on the couch with a big dish of ice cream while you read Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. This one might put you off your food for a while!

Pandora is 40 years old and has put on a few pounds recently. She was a professional caterer for years before launching a new business, and she still likes to cook. She is married to Fletcher, a 46-year-old who now (thanks to her success) has the financial freedom to stay home and create high-end wooden furniture (more art than seating.) Pandora enjoys being stepmother to teenagers Tanner and Cody.

Pandora only wishes Fletcher wasn’t so strict about his diet and exercise regimen. Fletcher’s getting healthy midway through their seven-year marriage meant rejecting the fattening foods Pandora used to cook for him. This brings out a rebellious streak in Pandora; after Fletcher repudiated cheese, she brought home half a wheel of Brie, lodging it in the fridge.

Into this pleasant enough, homey life with its minor daily frictions about who is eating what, crashes Pandora’s beloved big brother Edison, who is down on his luck and needs a place to stay. Edison (now also in his forties) left home as a handsome, cocky young man for a successful career as a jazz pianist in New York City and has put on well over a few pounds since Pandora last saw him. The installation of her loud, large-appetited, boastful brother into Pandora and Fletcher’s quiet, abstemious household results – unsurprisingly – in a test of Pandora’s strained loyalties. An only child, Fletcher doesn’t understand Pandora’s little-sister bond to her outsized brother, and Edison’s careless lack of self-control around food is like a slap in the face to him, with his careful routine. Pandora loves her husband and step-children and wants to preserve the family peace. But Edison is her brother and needs her help.

Big Brother is a weighty contemplation of food – the act of eating, the sharing of meals, choices of food, attitudes towards people’s weights, getting fat, getting thin, and the elusiveness of satisfaction – wrapped in a tale of two siblings and their complicated relationship to food and to each other.

Lionel Shriver is best known for her novel of extreme family dysfunction, We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I think Big Brother, with its focus on obesity, has more in common with So Much for That, a thought-provoking novel that takes the topic of American health insurance coverage and spins a universal human story out of it. Just off the top of my head, it’s easy to come up with several questions a book group might discuss after reading Big Brother:

  • How much does familial love require us to do when siblings are in trouble, and it’s their own fault?
  • Why is food usually a central part of gathering together with friends and family?
  • How does morality enter into our views on overeating as an occasional indulgence vs. an everyday thing?
  • What is self-control, exactly, and when should we relinquish it to someone else?

Thanks to all who entered the Literary Giveaway Hop for a chance at a brand-new copy of Big Brother. The winner has been announced. If you didn’t win, but end up reading Big Brother anyway, please come back and tell me what you think!

Big Brother
Shriver, Lionel
June 4, 2013
373 pp.

Disclosure: I borrowed my copy from the public library, but also bought a copy to give away during the Literary Giveaway Hop.

Other opinions on Big Brother (all very good):
Leeswammes’ Blog
Man of la Book (slight spoiler alert)
TLC Blog Tour Schedule

25 thoughts on “Watching How He Eats: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver @HarperCollins”

  1. This sounds very interesting. Great review. I find family relationships interesting, and although I mostly stick with crime fiction, this sounds like a good read. And the food issues are interesting too.

    1. I like books about family relationships, too. I don’t read that much crime fiction, but want to read more Tana French and am hooked on Louise Penny and Michael Connelly’s books.

  2. It’s ridiculous how much I want to read this 🙂 I have to get my hands on a copy SOON 🙂

  3. Your post about this book during the giveaway (and now this one) have really intrigued me. I might have to pick this one up, even though my Kindle is already full of other things I should get to reading soon!

  4. I think I could be ready to read another by this author. I was turned off by the health care book but this one looks like it may not be as preachy or angry? or I could be wrong. Anyway, I’ll go with this one next.

  5. Great review. I was really struck by the way Shriver ended this one. It made the story stick in my head for a VERY long time after I finished it…I think that alone was a major reason why I enjoyed it so much.

  6. I haven’t been too interested in this, because my first thought on the name was 1984 and I haven’t read Shriver yet, but the more I read about it the more I am becoming interested. I might actually read the spoiler review you’ve listed because for once I’m wondering whether spoiling it would make me go and read it.

  7. I liked this book a lot (even though the characters were not always likable). It was my first book by the author and I loved her writing – will definitely read more by her.

    1. I didn’t think it was preachy! I think the author might have based the book somewhat on personal experience and used obesity and body image as a way of writing about family and how any kind of “shameful” addiction might affect a person and his/her family. I am predisposed to like this author’s work, however, as I’ve liked her other books, so maybe I’m not being objective.

Would love to have you comment!