Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Big Brother‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver tells the story of Pandora Halfdanarson and her relationship with her brother, Edison, a jazz musician who is coming to visit her in Iowa where she lives with her husband and two teenage stepchildren.  On arrival, Pandora is horrified to discover that Edison has become morbidly obese in the time since she last saw him four years ago and has to decide whether or not she will take matters into her own hands.

It has been about five years since I read Shriver’s best known novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and I have finally got round to investigating her other work.  ‘Big Brother’ was inspired by Shriver’s brother’s death linked to complications from obesity and as with ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, she writes thoughtfully about a controversial issue which is often sensationalised.  It is not so much the issue of food itself which is dealt with here but rather the emotional and behavioural challenges which surround it and the question of who is ultimately responsible.  

The story explores the widespread effects that Edison’s weight has on how Pandora sees her brother, the reasons why Edison started eating compulsively, whether or not he possesses the willpower to lose over two hundred pounds and Pandora’s own dysfunctional relationship with food.  Although Shriver presents a clear message, the issue is examined thoroughly from different angles.  This thoroughness is reflected in the prose itself which is very wordy.  However, while I think Shriver’s writing is very readable, I think it is one of those things you will either really like or really hate.

I can’t say too much without giving everything away but I had slightly mixed feelings about the ending, or rather I had several different feelings about it in quick succession.  At first, I was just surprised.  Then I felt annoyed and a bit cheated as it seemed as though Shriver couldn’t choose between the two outcomes. But then I decided that the dark message it sent about how we perceive and tackle weight and addiction issues – or at least how we feel we ought to deal with them – was actually very very clever.

Overall, ‘Big Brother’ is a multi-layered and intelligently written novel about one of the most difficult and challenging issues facing society today. Ironically, it is both uncomfortable and compulsive reading.  I will try not to leave it five more years before I read another of Shriver’s novels.  If you have read any of her other books, which ones would you recommend?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

  1. I read The Post-Birthday World which is about two versions of Irina’s life. In one version she kisses another man, in the other she doesn’t. I must have read this book at least 6 years ago and still think about it. I haven’t read The Big Brother although I have read We Need to Talk About Kevin. I think I need to find a slot on the TBR for this one. Thanks for the great review :-)

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  2. Like you, I have only read We Need to Talk about Kevin and Big Brother. I had the same initial reaction to the ending as you did, but when I thought further, it was actually the most perfect and powerful ending Lionel Shriver could have devised for this topic. She is a master at her craft.

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  3. I’ve liked all of Lionel Shriver’s books EXCEPT for We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was the first one I tried — so I think I should go back and read it again. I liked The Post-Birthday World a lot, but I guess I think more often about So Much for That and Big Brother.

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  4. Lionel Shriver specialises in books about people whom it is hard to love. I haven’t read Big Brother yet, A Perfectly Good Family has interesting issues and an excellently layered approach to a complex issue – I am not sure if “enjoy” is an epithet that can be applied here, or with “Kevin”, but her books certainly stay with you. Although I stuck with it, I was less engaged with The Post-Birthday World. Shriver also leaves the reader with some enigmatic endings, which may be why one goes on thinking about the books years later.

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  5. I too had mixed feelings about this novel, it’s well written, but I didn’t much care fir the ending really and overall found it uncomfortable reading.

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  6. Agree, I thought the ending of Big Brother was clever and thought-provoking.

    I’ve read nearly all of Shriver’s books – Kevin is the best and I still think about it almost ten years after reading it. Also good are So Much For That and The Post-Birthday World.

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  7. Despite your reservations about the ending, this has me intrigued. I’ve never read this author before, but I did enjoy the Kevin movie. Thanks for putting this on my radar.

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  8. I’d recommend So Much For That – about a man whose life plans are derailed by his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Absolutely loved it.

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  9. It took me a really long time to recover from We Need To Talk About Kevin. I’m still not sure if I’m ready to experience her work again – although if I do, this sounds like a really good one. So Much For That is an excellent book as well – another one that’s kind of hard to read. A friend of mine loves the Post-Birthday World but I haven’t given that one a go yet. It’s on the list!

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  10. I’ve only read We Need To Talk About Kevin, but I will ne adding this one to my list of things to read.

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  11. hilarycustancegreen

    OK I’m going to read another one after your review. After reading Kevin, I felt i needed a long recovery phase, but it is now three years. Thanks.

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  12. I recently read Big Brother and agree with your review. I also agree wholeheartedly with your comments about the ending. Lionel Shriver is a talented writer who’s not afraid of tackling the difficult issues, which she does very well indeed – her books are seldom a comfy, cosy read, but that’s o.k. by me. ‘Kevin’ is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

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  13. LS’s brother died at the end of 2009, I think, and BB was published early in 2013. Allowing for a publishing time lag of a year, say, and writing time, she probably wrote it while she was still grieving, which makes it all the more poignant. So I’ll definitely read it (when I can – so many books so little time)!

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