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3.7 out of 5 stars
Big Brother
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59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
Pandora Halfdanarson lives with her husband, 'food fascist' Fletcher, and her two teenage stepchildren in Iowa. She runs a successful business with her fantastic Baby Monotonous Dolls ( I hope the author has patented the idea,they would be sure to be a real life success) and is in something of a rut when we meet her. Pandora's childhood was somewhat unusual - her father was in a successful television show and all the members of her family are either distant or no longer alive, apart from her adored elder brother, Edison.

At the beginning of this novel we learn that Edison is coming for his first visit in four years. Pandora is expecting Edison to drive Fletcher mad. She is anticipating his never ending stories about life as a jazz pianist - name dropping and exaggerating. What she is not expecting is the fact that somehow, between visits, he has become obese...

This book is about many things. It is about how we view and relate to food, our obsession with weight, addictive behaviours, responsibility, marriage and family. As a story I could not put it down and that is the main thing - this is just a fantastic read. Pandora is just a wonderful character, so torn between her family and her ties to her brother and the history they share. It would be brilliant for book groups with so much to discuss and an ending you will think about for a long time. This is a real roller coaster of a book; about how society judges us, how we judge ourself and the difficult relationship so many people have with food. A truly great novel which I recommend highly.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 14 May 2013
I pre-ordered this book as I love Shriver's stange novels - no matter what they are about, they are always riveting. When it arrived I read it in one go - cover to cover. I don't really have time to be doing that normally, but the book is compelling, beautifully written and I just had to find out what happened. I won't give the plot away, or the ending. The characters in this boook are more likeable than most in Shriver's other novels. I loved the brother. I felt for Pandora as she is torn between trying to help her brother, and loyalty to her husband and family.

The book is about families, weakness and strength, food, love, truth, control and lack of it, loyalty, and people who give to others and people who take from others. Don't be put off about the food bit - it's interesting. For me, the central theme of this book is the love between a brother and sister, the responsibilty she feels for him right into middle age. I have never seen this so beautifully done. There is a lot of humour in this novel (of the black kind).

There is a twist at the end (2 actually). I did not like either of them and would have prefered the last chapter not to have been there, but of-course, there is a purpose to all of it. The book made me happy, The last chapter did not. Ian Mc Ewan does these twists as well sometimes, and even though there is always a purpose, it makes me want to punch a wall. But it did not spoil this novel for me. Five stars. I can't write book reviews for toffee, but wanted to put my opinion in here as Shriver deserves the effort. Worth every penny - such a small price to pay for a book that made me think about life, entertained me and gave me 9 hours of pure bliss. Thank you Lionel. I can't wait for the next one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2014
Lionel Shriver is perhaps best known for her novel We need to Talk about Kevin which tells the story of a school massacre told through the eyes of the perpetrator's mother. It was a phenomenal success and divided opinion. If, in the unlikely event you haven't yet done so, it is certainly worth reading now.

In Big Brother, Shriver tackles the controversial question of obesity, especially in American society. The story is narrated by Pandora, a middle-aged woman living with her husband Fletcher Feuerbach and stepchildren Tanner and Cody. She has always looked up to her big brother Edison, a jazz musician, who left home at a relatively early age. Out of the blue Edison announces he is coming for a visit having been virtually out of touch for several years. When Pandora collects him at the airport she is appalled at just how obese her brother has become. She herself is overweight (although nothing on the scale of Edison's obesity) while her husband has, himself, an uneasy relationship with food, practically living on brown rice and broccoli; in addition he is addicted to exercise in the form of cycling.- and is quite superior in his attitude to his wife and brother-in-law.

With the arrival of Edison, the atmosphere becomes increasingly fraught in the Feuerbach household and when Fletcher presents Pandora with an ultimatum - him or her brother, she chooses Edison and they move out and into an apartment together where Pandora becomes her brother's diet guru! And so the battle begins... There are a lot more facets to this story, including Edison and Pandora's upbringing.

Despite none of the characters being particularly engaging, I still enjoyed the book since Shriver, as is usual with her, does not shirk from criticism of obesity and gives an interesting perspective to this ever-growing (no pun intended) problem. She also draws a comparison between obesity and weight problems in general and social status. She makes a good fist of shattering the myth that when hugely overweight people lose massive amounts of weight they immediately become happy and well-adjusted human beings. I considered this aspect of the issue interesting and very convincingly handled.

I find Shriver's writing style appealing and easy to assimilate but thought this book lacked a deeper narrative as the reasons for Edison's obesity are never explored in any real sense. I would still, however, advise readers that this is a novel worth reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Fat may no longer be exclusively a feminist issue but, as this book shows, it is a fraught one for many cultures. With her customary sharp and interrogative intelligence, Shriver probes issues of fatness, and the underlying concern with whether we have lost the ability to eat `normally'.

Edison, at over 27 stone, is at the heart of this book but he's not the only one to have a dysfunctional relationship to food. His sister, Pandora, the narrator, is also disconcerted by how a middle-age weight gain impacts her sense of self, and her husband with his punishing exercise and paranoid eating regime doesn't help.

What makes this book stand out is Shriver's ability to catch our own ambivalence about issues of weight. Despite Orbach, despite the backlash against size zero, despite our own conscious intentions, weight is not just another number in the way that height or shoe size is - we do still judge people, literally weigh them up, so that size becomes a metric of character and, even, morality.

This isn't as tightly-written or as urgent as Kevin but is a bold investigation into our complex, complicated, sometimes very twisted relationships with food and our bodies.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 15 August 2014
The author has a very self-indulgent style of writing that results in an incredibly slow-moving plot and storyline. At times it felt like I was reading some kind of essay rather than a novel. I found this frustrating as I really wanted the story to move along. The basic premise of the book is interesting but I did get irritated with the slowness and then the stretch of credulity during the main part of the book. Then I got really irritated by the denouement, although interesting enough in concept. And then finally, the ending just, well, ended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Any Shriver book is a challenge and this one is no easy ride. Central characters who are utterly dislikeable as well as plain weird, barely discernible and less than credible plot and the reader kept at arms length throughout.

But, the quality of the writing makes Shriver a must-read and this book is no exception, even if I sympathise with other reviewers who are disappointed with Big Brother. I was tempted to give it three stars, but read it again and realised there's a lot more you can take from the narrative than is immediately apparent. It's certainly one you think about.

There's a lot to dislike - Shriver makes no concessions to non-American readers with the result that the endless detail about prime-time television shows not only goes over your head, it seems pointless and boring. And, fan though I am, it will take me a long time to forgive the totally sick-making bathroom scene which repulses rather than shocks and serves no other discernible purpose.

But, it's still worth a go.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 June 2014
At the back the book is a moving account of Lionel Shriver's brother, who was obese and who died young. It's written in direct prose without any attempt to over write. When I read it, I couldn't help wishing the author had employed a similarly direct style through the novel itself. Alas, everything seems to need an image, everything has to be described in what I find alienating detail and the characters simply for me don't come to life. The names seem to express how overblown it is - Pandora, Fletcher, Edison etc. Somehow it all reflects the obesity of Big Brother himself.

I wanted to like this book; tried very hard to get into it, but it just didn't work for me.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Lionel Shriver is again playing with/punishing her readers. As in The Post Birthday World, there are two takes on this story.

Personally I would have truly preferred to have come upon Big Brother in an entirely innocent state, without having seen any pre- publicity, although even the cover with it's Hitchcock-ian silhouette gives the game away. Without foreknowledge I could have been as shocked as Pandora found herself, at the airport meeting point, when she was looking out for her handsome, lithe and lively muso brother, Edison.

The complicated construct employed so skilfully by LS allows all sides of this already fractured family to have more than their say. You might find as I did, that the log jam of jumbled up insider jazz scene talk, plus the regular harking back to glory days when their father Travis was a famous tv actor, appearing regularly in a bowdlerised family situation drama, was all too dense for comfortable assimilation. What is more boring than someone recounting the plot of a tv programme back to you, however relevant it may to the relics involved here.

All the references are USA - food, music, shopping; no mercy is shown to UK readers, we have to `suck it up'. This autocracy is to be expected and usually wouldn't matter much but the plot line is fairly loose and therefore it grated on me more than I would have liked.

Some folk come out of all this better than others and that is the fun of the story. Best of all are the pertinent observations on the issue of obesity, greed and the newish habit of general `sizing people up' and judging their strength of character from that which has become more everyday.

As Lionel explains, her message becomes `We are meant to be hungry'. I will take that from the book, and excuse the wonky ending which tried my patience and made me feel slightly used and messed about with.
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Lionel Shriver is always an author worth reading, not least because although she may not be challenging anything about the form of the novel - she writes clear, taut narrative, strongly drawn character, coherent and accessible prose - she does challenge with her subject matter, and goes into areas which might be uncomfortable for the reader to consider, making us consider the things we gloss over, and avoid, preferring not to go there. And she does have some perfectly well-utilised suspenseful authorly surprises up her sleeve to jiggle the reader still further

Her own personal challenge is of course in one book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the story of a family whose son turns out to be one of those lone teenagers who go into their school one day and turn a gun on their classmates, she tackled a searingly difficult subject matter - maternal love, and its absence, the unlovable child, the unloving mother, and examines the fault lines. Her challenge is the discomfort evoked for the reader, the push-pull the reader is put through, and a book which is thought, heart and gut challenging, pushing us cerebrally and at an instinctive level. And how well she managed it

Other writers of course have tackled similar subject matter - I think of Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child, equally uncomfortable, but Shriver is a writer of more popular appeal and accessibility, so she rather brought this into wider consciousness - and it was later made into a film.

In Big Brother, she is as challenging, though I must admit to not being as wholly engaged as I was by `Kevin', perhaps because in some ways her central family is less ordinary. Pandora Halfdanarson is the adult, less gifted, middle child of a family. Father Travis, now a faded television star of a successful comedy series, Joint Custody, had three children, and the series, to some extent, used his own life as fodder, examining the family dynamics. The first born child, Edison, became a successful, charismatic jazz musician. The last born, Solstice, was highly intelligent, precocious and pretty. Pandora was the more phlegmatic, ordinary, shunning the limelight child. However, though she lacked the charisma of her other siblings, later in life she has achieved a fame she never sought, as an entrepreneur, and has a highly successful, on the button business which has brought her wealth and status. And the flashier stars of her family are all in some kind of decline.

Pandora is happily married, kind of, to controlling Fletcher, who designs and makes artisan furniture. Fletcher's first wife was a crystal meth addict, and he has a difficult relationship with his two children, Tanner, a seventeen year old caught in a wannabe dream of fame as a writer (he is actually mediocre) and sweet-natured young Cody, who may, or may not, have some skill as a pianist (like her step-uncle Edison), but is pretty ferociously shy. Pandora is a pretty good step-mum, and has a better, more forgiving and spacious relationship with Tanner and Cody than up-tight fitness obsessed Fletcher.

So, yes we do have a central family who are not quite functional, and the central character and narrator, Pandora, had a family which was not quite functional either, and she is a bit too self-effacing and self-deprecating, but ferociously loyal to both her new family and her old

The drama unfolds when Edison, dramatically washed up in some way, comes to visit, the two having not seen each other for some year. And funky, snake hipped, sexy young dude Edison is now a grossly - and the word is properly and disgustedly employed, grossly overweight by some 223 pounds - blimp. And his addiction to the sweet, the sticky, and the dripping with fat is threatening to continue to raise the poundage.

The subject matter then of this book, is food, fatness, thinness, obsession, the curious and often highly peculiar relationship humankind in the developed world has with the seemingly simple matter of eating, and the weight of everything food, cooking, eating holds, beyond the basic role sustenance plays in the rest of the animal - and for that matter, plant kingdom.

Taboos around extreme fatness, ideas and debates around body size and disability, those who deserve healthcare, and those who have brought all this upon themselves by their - what is it - addiction? Is it choice, is it illness?

And the playing field in which this all takes place looks at the sometimes opposing bonds of family-by-blood and family-by-choice-of sexual-partnership.

I understand why it's there, but the extra tease out challenge of fame, its pursuit, and the awkwardness of what happens when the famous construct a persona which begins to create blurs between what is the mirror being held up, and what is the reality which that mirror is reflecting. Where is mask, where is truth? This rendered what might have been a story of more ordinary lives a little less relatable to for me; possibly an extra challenge too far.

Nonetheless, a good read, with lots to ponder on.
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VINE VOICEon 15 April 2014
This book is about emotions and attitudes towards food. It also explores effects on our lives and relationships.
I have seen Lionel Shriver talking about this book and am aware of its intensely personal nature. She states that this is not an autobiography but there appear to be a lot of similarities to LS's own story.
From the first page, this book meets expectations - intelligent, emotional, tense and profound. Over recent weeks I have read a few books quickly, all full of characters and plot. This was a much needed contrast as it is full of indulgent prose which seem to demand that you read them slowly and soak in every word. I found myself frequently rereading sections to make sure I had picked up all the words and their meanings.
The plot is not a surprise having read the blurb and publicity, i.e. grossly overweight and flamboyant brother comes into a family which is conservative and "normal", the book then allows us to see the consequences. Even knowing all this though, it comes as a big shock to the reader when Edison is introduced. There is a huge amount of emotion here, as, whilst moving on the plot, LS looks at society's attitudes to obesity, weight loss and eating. On the way she also considers self control, addiction, family interactions, sacrifice and fame. So many issues but all put together intelligently, considering implications to the individual and to society as a whole.
I particularly loved the Baby Monotonous toy as it seems to sum up LS's approach - challenging and sensitive at the same time.
If there is a remote possibility that you didn't already have a difficult relationship with food then you will after reading this book, be you fat, thin or anything in between.
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