Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver

big-brother_customI’ve never read a Lionel Shriver novel before, because everybody I know has read We Need to Talk About Kevin and I just found the subject matter too disturbing to pick it up. I did feel I ought to read one of her books and I was intrigued by the premise of Big Brother — a middle-aged woman takes her brother, a down-on-his-luck jazz musician, into her home for awhile, but is horrified to discover that in the years since she’s seen him last he has become morbidly obese and a compulsive over-eater. It’s not like these are the only problems in their adult sibling relationship — they both bear the scars of being raised by an actor father more invested in his Brady-Bunch-style TV family than in his real kids — but Edison’s weight is always central to the story. His sister, Pandora, is married to a man who is as obsessed with health and fitness as her brother is obsessed with snack foods. For her, Edison’s obesity leads to reflections about her own body image, about the meaning of eating and food in American culture, and about the responsibility family members have toward each other.

I found this an interesting book to read; my enjoyment of it was somewhat muted by the fact that I disliked all three of the main characters — Pandora, Edison, and Pandora’s husband Fletcher — almost equally. I go back and forth on this question of how likable characters should be — I know you don’t have to “like” characters in order to find them well-written and compelling, and you certainly don’t need to approve of their life choices, but I think for me it’s hard to connect emotionally to a book if there’s not at least one character I find sympathetic on some level, so that was a problem for me here. The main character, Pandora, was one of those characters I just want to shake till her teeth rattle, which did not predispose me to be sympathetic to her.

Other quibbles I had with the book — parts that I thought were simply unrealistic or unbelievable — were beautifully resolved by some unexpected twists at the end, which left me far more impressed by Shriver’s skill as a writer than I had been in the middle of the book. All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, but I don’t think it will linger as long with me as some others because of my inability to connect with the characters emotionally or care deeply about what happened to them.

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