Don’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!
June 4, 2013
Disclosure: I borrowed my copy from the public library, but also bought a copy to give away during the Literary Giveaway Hop.