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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 22 April 2017
Liked this enormously. Shriver writes in a way that is personal, descriptive and wholly believable. I invested in the characters and enjoyed the concepts discussed. Entertaining, sad, real. Strongly recommend.
I only didn't give 5* because I was so profoundly affected by "...Kevin" and this didn't *quite* live up to it... but that Would have been a tall order and I didn't expect t to.
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I wonder if I would have formed the same opinion about Lionel Shriver's latest novel Big Brother, about a woman who takes it upon herself to help her morbidly obese older brother to lose 16 stone, had I not already known that Shriver's real-life brother was similarly overweight and died (almost certainly as a result) at 55. It's possible that I might have been less sympathetic to the narrator of Big Brother, an almost reluctantly successful entrepreneur from a somewhat dysfunctional showbiz family, if I hadn't read of Lionel Shriver's own pain at her brother's ill-health, as on the face of it, I couldn't find a great deal to like about Pandora for her own sake.

Neither, in fact, could I find much to like about her husband Fletcher, whose obsession with health food is clearly an eating disorder in its own right, or Edison, the `big brother' of the title. Not that this should matter - it's possible to care about characters without finding them likeable - but their company became frustrating at times, not least because I found them all rather two-dimensional. Edison, a jazz musician, speaks in dated jive talk, all `dig' and `cat' and `man'. Admittedly this is disparaged in the novel, with Pandora admitting that it seems ridiculous but asserting that this is really how those on the jazz scene talk (and Shriver is married to a jazz drummer, so I assume she would know) - but it doesn't make it any less irritating or cliched. Also, it appears that because Edison is fat, he must also be crass, untidy and clumsy - because hey, all fat people are, right? Pandora's father Travis is a TV actor who obsesses endlessly over his long-gone 70s heyday, and, like Edison, I found him stereotypical and unrealistic; ditto Pandora's sullen stepson, a standard-issue moody teenager, and her sweet stepdaughter, whose cute, saintly demeanour simply doesn't ring true, even when it's rather endearing.

That said, Big Brother still bears many of the hallmarks that made Shriver's smash-hit We Need To Talk About Kevin such a gripping read. The astute commentary on marriage and family relationships is once again compelling, as is the novel's sharp topicality, the unreliable narrator and the often acutely uncomfortable viewpoint from which she tells her story - such is Pandora's all-out revulsion at Edison's behaviour and condition that I felt desperately sorry for him, while at the same time knowing that I'm just as guilty as she is of having certain kneejerk reactions to those who are vastly overweight (even as someone who used to be five stone heavier than I am now, no stranger to being fat). Big Brother's observations on Western relationships with food in the 21st century are also sharp and relevant, although at times made the book feel more like an essay than a novel.

Big Brother is also strong on family resentment and rivalry. Pandora, for all she professes to love her husband Fletcher, is constantly in competition with him and threatened by his physical fitness; knowing that he insists on sticking to a strict, obsessively healthy diet while she is somewhat overweight, she leaves him bite-sized samples of desserts that she leaves, tantalisingly presented, in the kitchen for him to find. Fletcher himself seems to be inwardly bitter that his own business as a furniture-maker is infinitely less successful than Pandora's company. Baby Monotonous makes bespoke dolls that parrot the pet catchphrases of clients' loved ones, an enterprise Fletcher calls Baby Moronic despite it buying his home and feeding his family (his teenage children having been adopted by Pandora after a custody battle with their drug addict mother). This competitive undercurrent extends to Pandora and Edison, too - one point, Edison even suggests that his binge-eating was triggered by seeing his sister on the cover of a business magazine while his career as a jazz pianist was in irrevocable decline - and, most of all, between Edison and Fletcher, polar opposites openly vying for Pandora's care and attention.

The book is split into three sections. The first deals with Edison's arrival for a two-month visit, having found himself homeless and not having seen his sister for four years. During these years, he has more than doubled in weight and is now struggling with mobility and sleep apnoea, and his presence in the neat, ordered family home causes a constant strain, partly because he is careless and untidy but mostly because his immense bulk and eating binges embarrass and repulse the rest of the family. The second section follows Pandora's decision to risk her marriage by moving out of the family home to supervise Edison on an all-liquid, protein shake extreme weight loss diet. The third - well, it would be giving away far too much to reveal what happens here, but I will say that the final part of the book struck me at first as a terrible cop-out but then, when I really thought about it, seemed brave and even redeeming. A foreboding cloud of guilt hangs over this novel, which seems all the more poignant in the context of Shriver's own relationship with her late brother.

Big Brother raises pertinent questions about the way we look upon those who are extremely overweight and about the irreversible effect of our childhoods on our adult lives. Despite its faults - the flatness of most of the characters and the tendency to drift into polemic, for instance - this is a thought-provoking and sometimes unsettling read that is at once spikily satirical and deeply sad, without any trace whatsoever of sentimentality.
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on 9 July 2013
This book has an interesting premise and starts out rather well. It was compulsive reading to be sure but I now feel somewhat betrayed. Betrayed, by what is ultimately just fiction seems like just maybe I expected too much. Fiction within fiction feels wrong...at least to me. I don't want to ruin the book for future readers and I won't give anything away in this review. Lets just say that if this was a paper book and not one on my Kindle, I'd be selling this one on.
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on 17 May 2013
Lionel Shriver is unlike any other author! Her analysis is so thorough, heartfelt and realistic she must have lived before several times. Her prose is original but not convoluted for its own sake. Her writing style allows for deep understanding of her characters who are multi dimensional and human. Her books are not bubble gum escapism for the brain they are foie gras to be savoured.
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on 10 June 2013
Psychologically sound reasons for her brother's obesity and how she copes with it.

Shriver uses the language so well and structures her novels exceptionarely well.
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VINE VOICEon 20 June 2013
When Edison, a once-famous jazz player, comes to stay with his sister Pandora and her husband and stepchildren, everyone is shocked that this once-healthy man has become morbidly obese, and seems to have neither a job, home nor money. The family all react to this in different ways. Pandora wants to help him; Fletcher (a health fanatic) is disgusted with both Edison and his life-style; Tanner is busy being a difficult teenager, and has no time for his step-uncle; only Cody seems prepared to accept Edison for what he is. This novel is about how Pandora helps Edison tackle his obsity problem, and the effect this has on her and her family.

I have many problems with this novel. Fistly, I found the characters two-dimensional, and found it hard to sympathise with any of them (apart, perhaps, from Cody; the only really pleasant person in the novel). Secondly, I cannot believe that Pandora could do what she did without alienating the rest of the family (this doesn't seem to occur to her), and that she should be so suprised at Fletcher's completely natural reaction; and thirdly, the ending. Oh, that ending..

It is dififcult to review this novel without giving too much away. Suffice to say that endings are often difficult, for both author and reader. Readers can expect to feel suprise/relief/pleasure or even a reaction of "oh, my goodness! So that's what happened!" What they should not have to expect is deception. A twist is a popular device in fiction, and can be used most effectively. But the reader should always be given enough information for there to be the possiblity - be it ever so slight - that s/he just might have guessed what is coming. However, I defy anyone to guess the ending of this novel, and I for one felt thorougly cheated. After the "twist", the narrative continued for some time, tying up all the lose ends, but by this stage I had lost what little interest I still had. It was almost as though Shriver didn't know how to end her story and made a spur of the moment decision to end things as she did. On top of all this, I found the style slow and dull, and struggled to finish it. Some of the writing is undoubtedly good, but I find it hard to believe that this is the same author who wrote the utterly compelling We Need to Talk About Kevin (a novel I shall never forget).

Altogether, this novel was, for me, a huge disappointment. I didn't want to be the only reviewer to give it one star, (maybe I've missed something? Many seem to have really enjoyed it) so I added another. But I was sorely tempted to leave it at one.
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on 9 June 2016
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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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When Pandora - chubby forty-something, married to a grumpy health freak, and stepmother to his two teenagers - welcomes her big brother on a visit, she isn't prepared for the changes in him. After four years, the formerly good-looking jazz musician has become chronically obese, and his life and career have gone down the pan.
With husband Fletcher's increasing disgust at Edison's eating habits and untidiness, Pandora has to decide whether she should put her brother first and sacrifice her marriage to help her friendless sibling...
This was an enjoyable read, but one that makes the reader think about the wave of obesity sweeping the West today:
"The more I chewed, the more bewildered I grew by how this fleeting, unseizable pleasure had so enslaved my countrymen that many of us were willing to disgrace ourselves for it: demoralize ourselves for it; demolish a host of other pleasures for it, like running and dancing and sex; destroy this very pleasure itself in its pursuit - for every tidbit I'd consumed since putting on weight had been contaminated with an acrid after-taste of self-reproach; and even, in extreme cases like the one my fast becoming, die for it."
Expect to be surprised...
Probably 3.5*
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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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