Big Brother by Lionel Shriver: Is it worth it?

Guilt is Lionel Shriver’s plaything.

Guilt is Lionel Shriver’s plaything. In previous novels she has used it to tackle high school shootings or the American healthcare system, focusing huge scale issues into narrow people-driven narratives which force readers to examine them from a personal perspective.

In Big Brother, Shriver faces perhaps her biggest (excuse the pun) challenge—obesity. Perhaps it is an exorcism of personal demons for her. Perhaps it is an attempt to open up the growing problem of weight related health problems and the attitudes towards them. Either way the centre of the plot is guilt.

Narrator Pandora is crushed under her perceived obligations—to her brother, husband, children. What could have happened? What could she have done differently? How could she have been better?

A foretold uncertainty

The book shrewdly examines the complicated tangle of control, excess and the sublime delight of eating. It is a paean to food – to pleasure and comfort – suffocating under the tense, neurotic prose, strangled under the weight of guilt.

Shriver is fantastic at foretelling. She is constantly hinting at something ominous that is yet to happen and with a grim necessity we are driven to keep reading, until you reach the sharp jarring stabs as the plot twists catch you off guard.

Her writing is clear and fluid, enforcing the uncertainty of the plot—there is an obsessiveness in the care she writes with, the tension which simmers beneath each precise description seeps into the readers mind until we are counting alongside Pandora—each calorie, each weight loss shake, each snide comment that never quite blossoms.

The main issue with the novel is the reality of the characters and their struggle. They are too thinly drawn, lacking the emotional connections and flaws that would make them believable. The weight loss is too simple. Pandora never once fails; we never catch her secretly gorging on quarter pounders (with cheese!) in the car and stuffing the rubbish into someone else’s bin.

Shriver breezes over the bad days, condensing all the frustration, the anger and the gnawing animal growling in the pit of your stomach into less than a page. There is no struggle – they decide that fasting and diet shakes are the fastest way to achieve their goal so they do it with no looking back.

It seems so easy for Pandora and Edison to lose weight it is no surprise to the reader when they backslide – why should we feel sorry for them? – they didn’t work hard for it.

An unenthusiastic hint

As irritating as Fletcher, Pandora’s controlling, unsympathetic husband, comes across, he is healthy, and his rigid routines of exercise and diet are a much better model than his wife’s opinion that she has suddenly become superior to food.

Miniature portions of steamed broccoli and brown rice might taste vile and bland, but the effort he puts into every aspect of his life makes me respect his character far more than Pandora, bland as ‘white rice’ who writes herself off within the first few pages as being nothing more than a ‘foil’ to other people’s lives. 

It is hard to believe in her mission when the reader can’t really believe in her – she is unenthusiastic about everything besides winding up her husband.

Despite this, Big Brother is good. It engages the reader, gives them hope and snatches it away. The flaws and failings of the characters will break your heart even though you predicted them. Perhaps the fact that you predicted those failings makes it hurt all the more.

It is a book which could have been breath-taking, as it stands it is shocking and exciting as it examines the struggles of a woman fighting the disintegration of her family and the choking guilt which drives her decisions.

What do you think of the book? Have your say in the comments section below.