Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, Big Brother, is an Issue Novel, like her last one, So Much For That, which took on the health care system. In Big Brother, Shriver takes on obesity from a lot of angles – what causes the urge to overeat, how the non-obese see the obese, the impact obesity has on those watching from the sidelines.
The main characters are Pandora and her brother Edison, who has ballooned from 163 to over 300 pounds. When he comes for a visit from NY to her home in Iowa, she hasn’t seen him in four years, and is horrified by his altered appearance. Big Brother is about how the two relate to each other and the lengths to which Pandora will – and won’t – go to help him. What responsibility do we owe to a sibling in despair?
There’s a lot to like in Big Brother: Shriver’s brilliant-as-always writing; her perspective, which is thoughtful and unique as always; her honesty and willingness to delve into issues many of us don’t want to read about or discuss; her memorable characters. This isn’t a feel-good book, nor did I find it to be a page-turner, but it was a compelling read. (It IS a Lionel Shriver book, after all.) Like in So Much For That, I got the sense reading Big Brother that Shriver had an agenda, an issue, that she wrote a book around, rather than a story that erupted into a novel.
And then there’s the ending. I won’t get into it here to avoid spoilers, but there was a typical Shriver-ian twist that put the whole book into a different light. It is sure to alienate some readers, and I was certainly taken aback by it, but for me it ultimately didn’t detract from what the novel was trying to do.
I went to a Q&A with Lionel Shriver last month where she delved into her motivations for writing Big Brother. I will post the Q&A tomorrow – definitely worth a read if you want to learn more about this book.
I recommend this one with the caveats above. Know what you’re getting into, and beware the ending, and you won’t be disappointed.