Book review: Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:05pm


Big Brother
by Lionel Shriver
3 and a half stars
Janet Maslin

Despite its prickly tone and not terribly likable characters, Lionel Shriver's Big Brother has the muscle to overpower its readers. It is a conversation piece of impressive heft. Its thoughts on obesity make it Shriver's most topical book.

Big Brother is narrated by a middle-aged woman named Pandora, who opens up a box full of talking points when she takes charge of Edison, her dangerously heavy older brother. Pandora is uneasily overweight herself, since she is married to a thin, fit, superior-feeling bicyclist who has become "a nutritional Nazi".

Pandora lives in Iowa, rich and famous thanks to a company that makes mean-spirited talking dolls that mimic real people, thus turning passive aggression into a gift product. When Pandora makes a doll version of her husband, Fletcher Feuerbach, she puts sawdust dandruff on his sporty black fleece.

Edison, a jazz musician, hasn't fared so well. But Pandora doesn't know that until he calls and asks to visit. She arrives at the airport to hear disembarking passengers complaining about a fat, smelly man who took up more seat space than he deserved. And along comes Edison, who used to look like Jeff Bridges but now weighs well over 135 kilograms.

Edison hoovers up so much food that Fletcher, who cooks parsimoniously, resents the lack of leftovers. And woe to the artistic handmade furniture that Fletcher makes with such pride. When Edison predictably sits down and breaks one of Fletcher's creations, the caustic, joyless Pandora has to choose between the two incompatible men who love her.

She picks Edison. And she chooses to become Edison's personal diet coach. Declaring herself his boss, Pandora sets up housekeeping with Edison and promises him "the end of food as you know it". As Edison puts it, she turns "from Florence Nightingale to Mussolini in 24 hours".

She connects weight and status and sees that America has "an alarmingly large underclass - large in every sense".

What Pandora does not do is get far beyond the obvious. Big Brother offers little real insight into root causes of obesity, whether medical or psychological. And one of its main points is that eating is pointless. Pandora and Edison conquer their appetites only to discover that weight loss makes for "a pretty shabby religion".

The New York Times