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Big Brother

Big Brother

3.4 34
by Lionel Shriver

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Big Brother is a striking novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity from Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed author the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin.
For Pandora, cooking is a form of love. Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed high-end cabinetmaker, now spurns the “toxic” dishes that he’d


Big Brother is a striking novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity from Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed author the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin.
For Pandora, cooking is a form of love. Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed high-end cabinetmaker, now spurns the “toxic” dishes that he’d savored through their courtship, and spends hours each day to manic cycling. Then, when Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at the airport, she doesn’t recognize him. In the years since they’ve seen one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? After Edison has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: It’s him or me.

Rich with Shriver’s distinctive wit and ferocious energy, Big Brother is about fat: an issue both social and excruciatingly personal. It asks just how much sacrifice we'll make to save single members of our families, and whether it's ever possible to save loved ones from themselves.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Pandora hasn't seen her older brother, Edison, a hip New York jazz musician, in four years. When she picks him up at an Iowa airport, he gives her the shock of her life: Edison has gained over 200 pounds and is unrecognizable. His visit is an intrusion into Pandora's home, which she shares with her fitness-freak husband, Fletcher, and her two adopted children. National Book Award finalist and New York Times best-selling novelist Shriver (So Much for That; We Need To Talk About Kevin) is known for her unstinting scrutiny of timely topics. Now she confronts the social but also painfully private issue of obesity through sibling relationships and marriage. However, the novel is essentially about fat—the nature of our relationship to food, why we overeat, and whether crash diets really work. As Fletcher becomes incensed with his brother-in-law's appalling eating habits, slovenly appearance, and careless behavior, he gives Pandora an ultimatum: it's him or me. VERDICT Brilliantly imagined, beautifully written, and superbly entertaining, Shriver's novel confronts readers with the decisive question: can we save our loved ones from themselves? A must-read for Shriver fans, this novel will win over new readers as well. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 12/9/12.]—Lisa Block, Atlanta
The Washington Post - Jeff Turrentine
As a writer, Shriver's talents are many: She's especially skilled at playing with readers' reflexes for sympathy and revulsion, never letting us get too comfortable with whatever firm understanding we think we have of a character.
“Shriver is brilliant on the novel shock that is hunger. . . . Most of all, though, there’s her glorious, fearless, almost fanatically hard-working prose.”
The New York Times Book Review - Jincy Willett
Shriver understands that hunger is one thing for those who are literally starving and a very different thing for the rest of us. No matter how much we have, we're never content…Big Brother is about “the baffling lassitude of affluence” — the hard truth that “however gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse.”
Washington Post
“As a writer, Shriver’s talents are many: She’s especially skilled at playing with readers’s reflexes for sympathy and revulsion, never letting us get too comfortable with whatever firm understanding we think we have of a character.”
“The moving (and shocking) finale will have you thinking about the ‘byzantine emotional mathematics’ we all put ourselves through when overwhelmed with family responsibilities.”
People Pick (5 Stars) People
“(A) delicious, highly readable novel . . . (which) raises challenging questions about how much a loving person can give to another without sacrificing his or her own well-being.”
Miami Herald
Big Brother is vintage Shriver - observant, unsettling, funny, but also, as Pandora admits, ‘Very, very sad.’”
New York Times
“Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother has the muscle to overpower its readers. It is a conversation piece of impressive heft.”
USA Today
“The ever-caustic Shriver has great fun at the expense of crash diets and a host of other sacred pop-culture, er, cows. Politically correct it’s not, but Big Brother finds the funny - and the pathos - in fat.”
The Rumpus
“A great plot setup that presents an array of targets for Shriver to obliterate with her knife-sharp prose.”
New Republic
“Her [Shriver’s] best work—Big Brother is her twelfth novel—presents characters so fully formed that they inhabit her ideas rather than trumpet them.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The diet - the story of a heroically undertaken significant change - is pretty nearly irresistible. But what really powers this story, an outsize look at the most basic of human activities, eating, is a search for the definition, and appreciation, of ‘ordinary life.’”
Margot Livesey
“What would you do for love of a brother? For love of a husband? For love of food? In Big Brother, Shriver’s new and wonderfully timely novel, her heroine wrestles with these vexing questions. Only the scales don’t lie.”
Gary Shteyngart
“The fellowship of Lionel Shriver fanatics is about to grow larger, so to speak. Big Brother, a tragicomic meditation on family and food, may be her best book yet.”
J. Courtney Sullivan
“A searing, addictive novel about the power and limitations of food, family, success, and desire. Shriver examines America’s weight obsession with both razor-sharp insight and compassion.”
“Shriver brilliantly explores the strength of sibling bonds versus the often more fragile ties of marriage.”
The Economist
“[Shriver] has a knack for conveying subtle shifts in family dynamics. . . . Ms Shriver offers some sage observations. . . . Yet her main gift as a novelist is a talent for coolly nailing down uncomfortable realities.”
“Shriver is wonderful at the things she is always wonderful at. Pace and plot. . . . Psychology.”
“Would I recommend Big Brother? Absolutely. It confronts the touchy subject of American lard exuberantly and intelligently; it makes you think about what you put in your mouth and why.”
People Pick (4 Stars) People
“(A) delicious, highly readable novel . . . (which) raises challenging questions about how much a loving person can give to another without sacrificing his or her own well-being.”
New York Times Book Review
“Pandora is a masterly creation.”
Evening Standard (London)
“The latest compelling, humane and bleakly comic novel from the author of We Need to Talk about Kevin.”
The Times (London)
“A surprising sledgehammer of a novel”
Sunday Times (London)
“A gutsy, heartfelt novel”

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Read an Excerpt

Big Brother

By Lionel Shriver

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 Lionel Shriver
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-145857-6

chapter one
I have to wonder whether any of the true highlights of my
fortysome years have had to do with food. I don't mean cel-
ebratory dinners, good fellowship; I mean salivation, mastica-
tion, and peristalsis. Oddly, for something I do every day, I can't
remember many meals in detail, while it is far easier for me to call
up favorite movies, faithful friendships, graduations. It follows,
then, that film, affinity, and education are more important to me
than stuffing my face. Well done, me, you say. But were I hon-
estly to total the time I have lavished on menu planning, grocery
shopping, prep and cooking, table setting, and kitchen cleanup
for meal upon meal, food, one way or another, has dwarfed my
fondness for Places in the Heart to an incidental footnote; ditto
my fondness for any human being, even those whom I profess
to love. I have spent less time thinking about my husband than
thinking about lunch. Throw in the time I have also spent ru-
ing indulgence in lemon meringue pies, vowing to skip breakfast
tomorrow, and opening the refrigerator/stopping myself from

4 ? lionel shriver
dispatching the leftover pumpkin custard/then shutting it firmly
again, and I seem to have concerned myself with little else but
So why, if, by inference, eating has been so embarrassingly
central for me, can I not remember an eidetic sequence of stellar
Like most people, I recall childhood favorites most vividly,
and like most kids I liked plain things: toast, baking-powder bis-
cuits, saltines. My palate broadened in adulthood, but my char-
acter did not. I am white rice. I have always existed to set off
more exciting fare. I was a foil as a girl. I am a foil now.
I doubt this mitigates my discomfiture much, but I have some
small excuse for having overemphasized the mechanical matter of
sustenance. For eleven years, I ran a catering business. You would
think, then, that I could at least recall individual victories at
Breadbasket, Inc. Well, not exactly. Aside from academics at the
university, who are more adventurous, Iowans are conservative
eaters, and I can certainly summon a monotonous assembly line
of carrot cake, lasagna, and sour-cream cornbread. But the only
dishes that I recollect in high relief are the disasters—the Indian
rosewater pudding thickened with rice flour that turned into a
stringy, viscous vat suitable for affixing wallpaper. The rest—the
salmon steaks rolled around somethingorother, the stir-fries of
thisandthat with an accent of whathaveyou—it's all a blur.
Patience; I am rounding on something. I propose: food is by
nature elusive. More concept than substance, food is the idea of
satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself, which is
why diet can exert the sway of religion or political zealotry. Not
irresistible tastiness but the very failure of food to reward is what
drives us to eat more of it. The most sumptuous experience of

big brother ? 5
ingestion is in-between: remembering the last bite and looking
forward to the next one. The actual eating part almost doesn't
happen. This near-total inability to deliver is what makes the
pleasures of the table so tantalizing, and also so dangerous.
Petty? I'm not so sure. We are animals; far more than the
ancillary matter of sex, the drive to eat motivates nearly all of
human endeavor. Having conspicuously triumphed in the com-
petition for resources, the fleshiest among us are therefore tower-
ing biological success stories. But ask any herd of overpopulating
deer: nature punishes success. Our instinctive saving for a rainy
day, our burying of acorns in the safest and most private of hid-
ing places for the long winter, however prudent in its way, how-
ever expressive of Darwinian guile, is killing my country. That
is why I cast doubt on whether the pantry, as a subject, is paltry.
True, I sometimes wonder just how much I care about my coun-
try. But I care about my brother.
Any story about a sibling goes far back indeed, but for our
purposes the chapter of my brother's life that most deserves
scrutiny began, aptly, at lunch. It must have been a weekend,
since I hadn't already left for my manufacturing headquarters.
As usual in that era, my husband Fletcher had come upstairs
on the early side. He'd been getting up at five a.m., so by noon he
was famished. A self-employed cabinetmaker who crafted lovely
but unaffordable one-of-a-kind furniture, he commuted all the
way to our basement, and could arise whenever he liked. The
crack-of-dawn nonsense was for show. Fletcher liked the implied
rigor, the faÃade of yet more hardness, fierceness, discipline, and

6 ? lionel shriver
I found the up-and-at-'em maddening. Back then, I hadn't the
wisdom to welcome discord on such a minor scale, since Fletcher's
alarm-clock setting would soon be the least of our problems. But
that's true of all before pictures, which appear serene only in ret-
rospect. At the time, my irritation at the self- righteousness with
which he swept from bed was real enough. The man went to sleep
at nine p.m. He got eight hours of shut-eye like a normal person.
Where was the self-denial?
As with so many of my husband's bullying eccentricities, I
refused to get with the program and had begun to sleep in. I was
my own boss, too, and I detested early mornings. Queasy first
light recalled weak filtered coffee scalded on a hot plate. Turning
in at nine would have made me feel like a child, shuttled to my
room while the grown-ups had fun. Only the folks having fun,
all too much of it, would have been Tanner and Cody, teenagers
not about to adopt their father's faux farming hours.
Thus, having just cleared off my own toast and coffee dishes,
I wasn't hungry for lunch—although, following the phone call of
an hour earlier, my appetite had gone off for other reasons. I can't
remember what we were eating, but it

Excerpted from Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Copyright © 2013 Lionel Shriver. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lionel Shriver's novels include The New Republic, So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her journalism has appeared in The Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Brief Biography

Brooklyn, New York, and London, England
Date of Birth:
May 18, 1957
Place of Birth:
Gastonia, North Carolina
B.A., Barnard College of Columbia University, 1978; M.F.A. in Fiction Writing, Columbia University, 1982

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