‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 384 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In Lionel Shriver’s last novel, So Much For That, she poked a big fat stick at the American healthcare system and highlighted all the things that were wrong with it. In her latest book, Big Brother, she picks up another stick, but this time she pokes it at the American diet to show how obesity — and an unhealthy obsession with food — can ruin lives.

Big, fat brother

The story is narrated by forty-something Pandora, a successful entrepreneur, who is married with two step-children. When she goes to the airport to collect Edison, her brother, a famous jazz musician whom she has not seen for more than four years, she does not recognise him because he’s packed on so much weight.

During his visit it becomes increasingly clear that Edison has a real problem with food — but no one is prepared to tackle him about the subject, not even Pandora’s health-obsessed, cycling-freak of a husband, Fletcher, who can’t stand watching the man stuff his face with food at every opportunity.

Eventually, things come to a head as Edison outstays his welcome and breaks a precious piece of furniture — by sitting on it. That’s when Pandora puts her own marriage on the line by offering to help her big — in all senses of the word — brother lose weight by setting him up in his own cottage nearby, living with him and managing his food and fitness regime 24/7 as a kind of personal trainer cum food Nazi. But the question is: can he shift all 223 pounds in a year?

Issues-based novel

Unsurprisingly for a Lionel Shriver novel, Big Brother is an issues-based story. Not only does it highlight the health problems — diabetes, stroke, fluid retention and so on — associated with obesity, but it explores the social and psychological problems arising from being seriously overweight — and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and informed way.

And while the characters are wonderfully realised — Edison is painfully egotistical, Pandora is convincingly torn between her brother and her own family, Fletcher is annoying in a morally smug “I only eat brown rice and broccoli” kind of way — there’s not much light relief (sorry, another pun) in this book. I found myself becoming weighed (oops) down by the unrelenting nature of it all. But perhaps that’s a strength too, because Shriver explores the issue from all possible angles, providing plenty of food for thought (oops, I did it again).

At its most basic level, Big Brother is a story about sibling love — and rivalry — told in Shriver’s typically searing take-no-prisoners style. It’s filled with tension, brims with anger and packs a powerful punch — although the twist at the end makes it feel less like a punch and more like a raspberry being blown in your face. Still, if you’re looking for something meaty to get your teeth into… I’ll stop now, shall I?

11 thoughts on “‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver

  1. I’ve also just finished this book and had a quiet gasp at the ending. I agree that Shriver’s constant “message” did wear a little thin (!!) but it definitely gives you something to think about – our Western society’s focus on the size of our bodies and our constant desire to change that size are glaringly exposed in this book.


  2. I do like Shriver’s writing, but it’s never fun for me. I liked So Much for That for the comparison of health care system (oh such a nerdy thing to say) but I struggled with The Post-Birthday World. Not sure about this one.


  3. I have to admit, I initially didnt really like the ending… but it did make me reasses the rest of the book (and the challenge that Pandora set her brother) and made me think about things a bit more. Was Shriver trying to say that too many people choose the easy option (and do nothing)? Im not sure.
    And it was fascinating that not one person in this book seemed happy with their body size… and that Fletcher, supposedly the healthiest of everyone, was slowly killing himself on the bike! I guess she showed both ends of the spectrum… and Pandora was the woman in the middle (literally), always trying to shift a few pounds so she can fit into her old jeans again!


  4. Admittedly, Im a fan… and out of all the Shriver books that I have read The Post-Birthday World remains my favourite. Probably because it was less about the issues and more about what happens when you take a fork in the road. I think that book came at a good time for me… and helped me realise there is no right or wrong decision (about what to do with your life), just different outcomes.


  5. Well, if you are interested in diets and food and obsessive eating, this book should keep you happy. I reckon it would also be a good book for book groups, as there is so much to discuss!


  6. I haven’t read anything by this author but the name has appeared a few times lately, and it’s been enough to make me think I should check out one of her titles. Not sure if I could read the one about health care in America without getting too annoyed, so I’ll probably pass that one up.


  7. Try the Post-Birthday World — its not an issues-based story — and its got very cool references to snooker in it. Its reviewed on this site.


  8. BTW, just to correct any overseas perceptions of Obama healthcare “reform” my insurance premium (which I have to pay for myself) has risen over 40%.


  9. Bloody hell… I suspect when the Tories finish their work dismantling the NHS here all Brits will be faced with sorting out private insurance, a prospect I do not relish.


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