Big Brother is my first exposure to a Lionel Shriver novel. My first impression, one that hardly changed for most of the book, was that Shriver is a good storyteller who populates her novels with a cast of interesting, well-developed characters. Her characters, flawed human beings that they are, are all the more realistic because making them “likable” is not a goal - rather, Shriver wants the reader to understand and remember them. I had a feeling that I would be exploring Shriver’s earlier work soon.
And then it happened. I reached the book’s final few pages and got a surprise that made me see Lionel Shriver and Big Brother very differently. It was one of those “aha moments” that made me realize there was a lot more going on here than I thought.
Successful businesswoman Pandora Halfdanarson has made a nice life for herself in Iowa where she lives with her husband and his two teen-aged children. Pandora, who spent summers in the area with her grandparents when she was a child, enjoys the relative simplicity of her lifestyle there. Her big brother, however, has taken the opposite approach with his own life. Edison, a talented jazz pianist, enthusiastically adopted his television-actor father’s screen-name, becoming Edison Appaloosa in the process, and moved to New York City to make his name. And, especially to hear him tell it, Edison has done quite well there.
But, as Pandora learns when Edison pays her a long-delayed family visit, all is not as it seems. The handsome brother she expects to collect at the airport is nowhere to be found. Instead, Pandora finds a morbidly obese version of Edison she barely recognizes as her brother. Edison is so big that, strictly for the convenience of complaining passengers, he has been carted to baggage claim in a wheelchair. When she gets him home to her family, Pandora and her husband are dismayed to find that all of Edison’s numerous bad habits have grown in proportion to the rest of him. He is the houseguest from hell.
Big Brother is most obviously about the obese and how they are perceived and treated by others – despite the fact that obesity is so common in this country. Shriver’s portrayal of their self-esteem problems and physical limitations is blunt; she does not shy away from any aspect of their daily lives, including cleanliness issues. She is equally blunt about the callous reaction to the grotesquely overweight that so many of us do not even try to hide from “big” people when we see them. But that is just the beginning of what Lionel Shriver wants to say. Big Brother is also about family loyalty, bad parenting, personal courage, blind love, depression, dieting, and chasing fame for fame’s sake.
And then there’s that surprise that I can’t tell you about.
Bottom Line: This one, particularly because of one or two memorable scenes, might not be for everyone, but those who stay with it will most likely consider themselves to have been well rewarded for the effort.