Lionel Shriver, the notable author perhaps best known for her button-pushing novel about a high school massacre, "We Need To Talk About Kevin," tackles obesity and family loyalty in her latest page-turner, "Big Brother," an equally engaging narrative about a woman who risks her own happiness and security to help her extremely overweight brother.
Pandora Halfdanarson is a former caterer turned entrepreneur living a mostly quiet life in Iowa with her health nut husband, Fletcher, who designs high end furniture nobody in the vicinity can afford, and her stepchildren, Tanner and Cody. When her older brother, Edison, a struggling jazz musician still waiting to be discovered, visits from New York for the first time in four years, Pandora is, to put it mildly, shocked to discover that her once slender sibling is now three times the size of his former self.
Much to the chagrin of her husband, Pandora invites Edison to move in for a few months until he is scheduled to leave for Portugal on a band tour. Edison’s exorbitant size, devil-may-care disposition and boundless appetite wreak physical and emotional havoc on Pandora’s household, as she counts the remaining days of his stay when she presumes her life will return to normal. On the eve of his departure, Edison shares some unsettling news with his sister, who then feels obligated to make some rash decisions that could put her marriage and family at risk.
Those familiar with Shriver’s work will recognize the author’s trademark ominous undertone, as well as her remarkable ability to effectively and intelligibly articulate the narrator’s jumbled thought process. The text pointedly calls attention to the siblings’ family history, including a much younger, distant sister, and their strained relationship with their father (a former television star whose fifteen minutes of fame were long ago exhausted, which makes for a fascinating subplot) and asks the reader to consider the impact of their upbringing and how it relates to Edison’s obsession with food and Pandora’s affinity for anonymity.
While Pandora’s predicament, as a result of Edison’s behavior, moves the story along and keeps the pages turning, Shriver also manages to insert little snippets that convey society’s polarizing attitude towards the obese, fitness and weight loss -- all of which are portrayed as extreme and potentially detrimental forms of behavior with more resemblances than differences.
Furthermore, the varied reactions to Edison because of his size, from strangers and family alike, are clearly indicative of an individual’s character. Nevertheless, Edison is hardly a victim wholly deserving of the reader’s sympathy, but that certainly doesn’t lessen the novel’s "weightiness" or the compelling prose of the author.