Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

Pandora Halfdanarson is a successful businesswoman; the person behind the Baby Monotonous doll which has become the must have grown-up toy. She lives in Iowa with her husband Fletcher Feuerbach, a carpenter who makes custom furniture, and his two teenage children Tanner and Cody. She is also the daughter of Travis Appaloosa, jazz musician and TV screenwriter, and has two siblings – the much younger sister, Solstice and a brother, Edison.

As the novel begins, Pandora receives a telephone call from New York jazz musician Slack Muncie, telling her Edison is homeless and ‘needs “someone to take care of him”’. Fletcher is less than happy about Edison coming to stay but Pandora points out that he’s her brother and Fletcher, having no siblings of his own, has to concede.

As Pandora waits in the airport for Edison, she overhears a conversation between a man and a woman regarding an oversized passenger who took up too much room and smelled:

…the pariah…must have been the very large gentleman whom two flight attendants were rolling into baggage claim in an extra-wide wheelchair. A curious glance in the heavy passenger’s direction pierced me with a sympathy so searing I might have been shot. Looking at that man was like falling into a hole, and I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.

“Yo, don’t recognize your own brother?”

When Pandora gets Edison home, he literally becomes the elephant in the room:

“…notice how she keeps pretending how everything’s all normal? Like, nobody’s supposed to mention that ‘Uncle Edison’ barely fits through the fucking door”.

The question is what are they going to do about it?

It would have been easy for a novel like this to fall into monotony, practically repeating a mantra of ‘fat is bad’ but Shriver’s better than that and instead uses it to explore all our issues around body image – the overweight; the underweight; exercise; diets; routines; obsessions; control. In a society where ‘perfect’ bodies are lauded in our newspapers and magazines, on the internet and television; where a few pounds of weight gain or loss are dissected on front pages, and the latest diet is given a spot in each weekly edition of women’s magazines, this is a obviously a pertinent topic.

And this is not just Edison’s story; it is also Pandora’s. Pandora, as a modern successful woman, step-parent with no biological children of her own, and the family’s breadwinner, has issues of her own to explore. Besides being a discussion about weight, this is also a novel about women’s place in society, specifically at work and at home. Where do we fit if we’re successful? Are we capable of helping to raise children if we haven’t produced any of our own? How do we negotiate the territory of earning more than our spouse?

This is a thought-provoking novel that will no doubt stir some controversy. But the answer you’re looking for is yes, I do think it’s better than We Need to Talk About Kevin and it’s the novel we’ll all be talking about for months to come.

Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.

6 thoughts on “Big Brother – Lionel Shriver

  1. Sounds interesting, i enjoyed “Kevin enormously and liked Double Fault too, but have never read any of her other novels, – this sounds intriguing though. I can’t believe it’s better than Kevin though.


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