Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin has been on my TBR for two years now, but I’m dreading it a bit, either I’ll hate the epistolary form, or it will be an amazing book and devastating because of that. Stuck in this conundrum I decided to start easy and got on to Big Brother.

Pandora and her family lead a quiet life in Iowa, while her brother Edison basks in the glamorous life of a New York jazz musician. When Edison comes to stay with Pandora for a while, she does not recognize him, formerly slim Edison is now morbidly obese. His eating habits and grating personality quickly spark and escalate a conflict with Fletcher, Pandora’s health obsessed husband. Pandora faces a choice between her sometimes tyrannical husband that she nonetheless loves and her deeply troubled but also annoying brother. She makes her decision and the book follows her struggle and just when we think we know how it’s going to end Shriver throws at us the mother of all plot twists, turning in one swift master stroke a good book into a brilliant one.

The book reads very easily, almost too easily for the heavy topics it is handling, but that is part of the point, for we come across those issues every day, they are special, but at the same time they are not. Shriver writes about our relationship with food, that is so often toxic and just covering other problems. She constructs a fascinating portrait of family dependencies, built on different foundations such a love or guilt, but inevitably binding. She also questions how binding they actually should be, where is the balance, who is more important: a husband, a brother or maybe for once ‘me’? Her observations on emotional motivations behind characters actions are brilliant and ring true and familiar. I found Pandora’s motivations especially fascinating, it seems like all her decisions are driven by guilt, and yet she has nothing to feel guilty about. This feeling makes her an easy target for Fletcher’s and Edison’s manipulation and both men use it often. Gradually Pandora grows, but it is a slow and painful process.

For the most part of the book I found it interesting, but distanced, I didn’t feel moved, it felt like the narrator is keeping me at arm’s length, like I was reading a vivisection report on a family rather than being plunged into its heart, but even this distance and perceived coldness has been a consciously used device in constructing this book. In the end I take my hat off to what Shriver managed to pull off.

I must say that now I know it won’t be the epistolary form that will be my problem with we Need to Talk About Kevin…but my interest has certainly spiked.

Have you read either of those books? Or any other book by Shriver? What do you think?

Quotes from Big Brother

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

5 thoughts on “Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

  1. I’ve read both books (and nearly everything she’s written). I find her writing and narrative structure always very clever and covering issues that I think about long after I’ve finished the book. It’s true, they seem lightly handled but…

    Kevin is the one book that I think about regularly, despite the fact that I read it 10 years ago. It’s frightening, real, amazing.

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