I've not read all of Lionel Shriver's work, but both "The Post-Birthday World" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin" blew me away with the clever prose and insightful commentary on the human condition. I have learned that Shriver doesn't make her characters warm and fuzzy, she doesn't do happily ever after, and she loves controversial subjects. I'm OK with that. I just like that she makes my brain buzz.
Her newest book "Big Brother" has definitely gotten some chatter on the blogs, so I thought it would be a good choice for vacation reading.
Synopsis: Pandora has run a successful catering business, then stumbled upon the invention of a fad product that has made her extremely wealthy. This allows her to support her husband in his unprofitable custom furniture business, and spend time with her teenage step-children. Food has always been a thing of pleasure for her (explaining the extra few pounds that she has put on the last few years), and finds it highly annoying that her husband has gone on a fitness kick that denies any pleasure-eating. Pandora resists almost on principle.
Then she discovers that her brother, Edison, a jazz musician in NYC, has fallen on hard times, and needs a place to stay while he gets back on his feet. Nothing can prepare Pandora for the sight of her brother when he steps off the plane...over the last four years since she has seen him, he has gained 300 pounds. Pandora feels some responsibility to help Edison, but after a couple of months of living with his sloppiness and binging on junk food, Pandora's husband makes it very clear that she must choose between him and her brother.
Shriver doesn't mince words as she addresses one of the most controversial and sensitive subjects right now in the US - obesity. Also in this highly-discussable and prickly book we are forced to consider exactly what we would sacrifice to try to save a family member from their self-destruction, and if that is even really possible.
My thoughts: Let's talk about what I liked first. This is classic Shriver. She has such a wonderful way of making you uncomfortable, of making you squirm, with her insights. Reading her books reminds me of that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex has his eyes pried open and is forced to watch scenes of violence. I say all of this with love in my heart. I like an author will balls like that.
While Edison had a serious obesity problem, to the point where he was offending others on his flight, Pandora had gained some extra "layers of love" (my term) and needed to drop a few pounds on her end. Shriver mines this huge spectrum of weight issues that we can all relate to, regardless of our size. The emotional aspect of eating, being overweight because we are depressed, being depressed because we are overweight, the stereotype of someone thin versus someone heavy and how they are treated in reality.
She also probes the balance of loyalty to blood relatives and your spouse. She touches on the fine line between giving your kids the confidence that they are wonderful and special at everything when they are not, and raining on their parade and squelching their ambitions. There are landmines of little gems within the text. What I am saying is that this is the perfect book club book. I predict the discussion at that meeting would be spirited.
But at the end of the day, I cannot love this book. And I can't tell you why, or at least I can't give you specifics, because that would spoil it for you. But suffice it to say that I think Shriver screws the reader. This novel is built on a house of cards, and at the end I felt cheated and slightly pissed off. Not everyone will feel that way. In fact, someone told me that one blogger didn't even catch the fact that they had been screwed. I don't like to be manipulated, and in the future, I'm not sure I will ever really trust her with my time.
3 out of 5 stars