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.
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About 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.
Hometown:Brooklyn, New York, and London, England
Date of Birth:May 18, 1957
Place of Birth:Gastonia, North Carolina
Education:B.A., Barnard College of Columbia University, 1978; M.F.A. in Fiction Writing, Columbia University, 1982
Read an Excerpt
By Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Lionel Shriver
All rights reserved.
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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a great book that revisits the characters of We Need to Talk About Kevin. The author brings a freshness to the characters as they explore new areas including obesityhealth.
I liked this book better after I discovered that Shriver's brother actually died of obesity related issues in his 50s. This book must have been cathartic for her, where she could create an alternate universe in which she was able to save her brother.
4.5 Stars 'Big Brother' is a poignant and witty novel that looks at the bonds of family and how far a person will go to protect and save those we love. The story follows main character Pandora as she deals with the daily monotony of her both her home life and her flourishing company. Pandora receives a phone call one day informing her that her dear older brother, Edison, has been crashing at a friend's house and has worn out his welcome there. With nowhere else to go, Pandora invites Edison to come and stay with her and her family in their small Iowan town. Pandora and her family receive a shocking surprise when Edison arrives - he is hundreds of pounds heavier than the last time they saw each other. Pandora is determined to get Edison back to what he was, all while putting a strain on her marriage - until her husband finally demands that she must choose between him or her brother. This was an intriguing story that delves into deep topics in our society. It speaks of family, devotion, loyalty, love, and the more hushed topics of obesity and dieting that ravishes our culture. The author takes all of these important topics and mingles them with witty dialogue and compelling narrative that draws the reader in from the very first line of the novel and promises to stay with you long after you finish the last word. The characters were all impeccably written - each with their own flaws, strengths, and personalities. I loved Pandora as the lead character - she is a common woman in America, both devoted to her family and to her work, but ultimately she needs to discover herself in order to save those she loves. The writing itself was a prime example of the immense talent of the writer. The book clips along at a fast pace and had me totally engrossed in the pages within moments of starting it. The narrative is eloquently written and seamlessly flows together to weave a beautiful story that deals with important topics that rarely are given the light they need. Highly recommended for fans of contemporary fiction as well as well as those simply looking for a wonderful story that is fantastically written. Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
This is hands down a great book. The author pulls us in with the story of an obese brother. It is a can't put down book from that point on.
Interesting story about difficult family situations
I found the story compelling, unique and thought provoking. The characters are richly developed, and the author presents a tapestry of themes and skillfully weaves them throughout the book. Much of the dialogue seems phony; actual people don't converse the way these characters do. And the book has a clunky way of jumping between perspectives. One minute we're reading about the heroine's thoughts and intricacies of her daily life, and the next minute we're getting broad-view social commentary. While the commentary is ostensibly coming from the heroine, it doesn't really click for me, especially as she tells us early in the book that she doesn't see the point of having many opinions. Throughout the book, I struggled to understand why the heroine made the decision that most of the story revolves around. While the ending resolved that issue in my mind, it also left me baffled. Usually I appreciate a twist ending that I truly didn't see coming, yet this one felt abrupt, manipulative and just plain strange. All that said, I think the story and characters are well worth a read, and I plan to pick up another book by the same author.
This book is terrible...very disappointing considering all of the reviews.
After reading a loving "we need to talk about Kevin" I was expecting more from this novel. It was enjoyable up until the end. I honestly expected to be more satisfied but was left feeling empty instead of full.
Ugh....I picked this because it was on the top picks for 2013 and covered the important topic of obesity. But, really, this author just went on and on....so many words (and backstories) where so few would have done. Whose teenagers talk that way in the home? And the alter-universe ending....oh, yeah, it didn't really happen. And I really felt that the author didn't tackle the main subject of obesity with sensitivity or honesty. Broken chairs? Upchuck? Skip this book, there are lots of better ones out there.
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver is a fic­tional book from this acclaimed author. Ms. Shriver won the 2005 Orange Prize for her acclaimed novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Pan­dora, a suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur, loves to cook but her hus­band, Fletcher, became a health nut who man­i­cally cycles and does not let an unhealthy calo­rie pass his lips. When Pandora’s older brother, a jazz pianist named Edi­son, comes to visit she is shocked to learn that he is close to 400 lbs. Pan­dora decides to take Edi­son under her wing and help him get to his goal weight within a year. Her pet project helps her recon­nect with her brother, but affects her fam­ily and her husband. Big Brother by Lionel Shriver is a book which styl­is­ti­cally reminded of So Much for That which I thought was fan­tas­tic. Ms. Shriver wrote an inter­est­ing book, with a twist at the end which I did not see coming. I was a bit dis­ap­pointed with the book because I thought it might have more social com­men­tary. After all, So Much for That was scathing in its crit­i­cism of the health care sys­tem. I was expect­ing more of the same about the weight loss indus­try, its shys­ters, the dis­crim­i­na­tion and rea­sons for obe­sity – I got some of that but not much. Yes, I con­cede that I should read a book with­out any prior expectations. How­ever, despite my out­look, I still found the book inter­est­ing, fluid and a worth­while read. Pur­pose­fully Ms. Shriver con­trasts extremes. Pan­dora, the pro­tag­o­nist, is a good step-mother who is daugh­ter to a lack­ing father. Pan­dora, the suc­cess­ful busi­ness woman, is mar­ried to an ex-salesman who builds fur­ni­ture in the base­ment and is a health freak, she is also sis­ter to a man who is almost 400 lbs. and, of course, the two men in her life are polar oppo­sites in many regards but have much in com­mon (both are extrem­ists and artists). The end­ing left me dumb­founded, I’m still not sure if I liked it or now as it turned the whole book on its head, but I have to give Ms. Shriver kudos for brav­ery. Not every author could write such an end­ing, know­ing full well it will be polar­iz­ing, and pull it off as smoothly as she did. The book did not dis­ap­point, I was expect­ing more but I still enjoyed the author’s mix of inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and social com­men­tary. The book gives the reader much to think about, the novel doesn’t offer any answers but brings many ques­tions fore­front and center. Dis­claimer: I got this book for free
Having said Jut OK, I really enjoyed how the book was written with so much description and conversation between the characters. I was disappointed in the ending as I felt scammed by the author. Believe me I m not looking for a sugar coated ending but please don't insult me like that. I felt like I wasted my time.
A thoroughly enjoyable, heartwarming and heartbreaking read. I was brought through each emotion that Lionel Shriver's writing usually brings out. It was so well written with the scenes detailed in such a way that I felt like a fly on the wall throughout the journey of this family. I think everyone with a sibling that they love, help, support, and fear for can relate to the relationship this brother and sister share. I also think that they can understand the pressure that relationship can put on other relationships in your life.
I liked the idea of the story but it seemed the author went on long after she should of and a the rest was just to hear her own voice.
I have been a fan of Lionel Shriver and have read most of her previously published books. I was hoping for quality similar to WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and THAT'S ENOUGH OF THAT (I loved this one.) I was disappointed. Although her take on the diet dilemma was interesting, she lost me on the climax.
From start to finish, I could not put this book down until the last word on the last page. Everyone in the United States has at least one obese friend or relative, and this book gives us a perspective from the obese person's point of view, and also a perspective from a concerned friend or family member regarding helping them overcome their obesity. You will not regret purchasing this book, and I am quite sure you will find someone to pass it on to who will enjoy it also.
This is an excellent book. Read it!
If you have ever tried to lose weight and felt overwhelmed, you should read this book. An interesting take on dieting. And the results? Read it and see for yourself..... Will definitely want to read more by Lionel Shriver.
Ms. Shriver is excessively proud of her vocabulary, using $10 words when $5 words would more than suffice. She also appears to have a serious prejudice against fat people. That being said, I found the book interesting enough to finish it.