19 February 2014

Big Brother


Goodreads synopsis: 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 devotes 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

First line: I have to wonder whether any of the true highlights of my fortysome years have had to do with food.

Stats for my copy: Hardback, published by HarperCollins Publications, 2013; 373 pages; borrowed from my local library.

My thoughts: I joined Weight Watchers about eight months ago. I quickly dropped ten pounds, and then my weight just hung in one spot, fluctuating a pound or so up and down each week. Tracking points is hard, cutting out unhealthy food and only shopping healthy is hard when you're on a budget (my daughters both also began trying to eat healthier and I swear our grocery bill tripled), and when you cook something from a recipe you've used for years, such as turkey and rice or chicken and dumplings, trying to figure out how many points your recipe breaks down to is sometimes a logistical nightmare. So when Pandora and her brother Edwin began their diet plan, I had a lot of sympathy for how hard it must have been. One thing I liked about Weight Watchers is you can still eat any kind of food you want. You might use all your daily points on one meal and then go hungry the rest of the day, but it's your decision whether to do that or not. With the diet Pandora and Edwin go on, envelopes of a drink mix, well I don't think I could do it.

Pandora is forty (if I remember correctly), has been married to Fletcher for seven years, has helped raise his two children, and has her own business. She's put on a little weight, like so many of us do as we get older, but she isn't necessarily what you'd call fat.

She hasn't seen her brother in a few years, and when he comes to visit and she picks him up from the airport she is shocked by how large he is. 386 pounds. For awhile his weight is the elephant in the room. She's afraid to address it, so she doesn't say anything to him, though she says plenty to us, the reader.

The book is broken into three sections. The first is about Edwin's extended visit which causes a huge strain on Pandora's marriage. The second section is about Pandora deciding that she is going to make Edwin lose weight, a decision which puts even more strain on her marriage. The third section is much shorter, more of an epilogue, and it left me feeling a little betrayed, a little angry, and after some time passed a little confused as to how I should actually feel.

I don't have any personal experience with someone who is obese the way Edwin is, so I certainly can't speak to how realistic the book is. I often worried that the diet Pandora and Edwin used was not actually healthy. How can a liquid diet be healthy for weeks on end? So I had mixed emotions throughout the entire book.

I did hit, for me, one especially sour note. Edwin admitted that he'd done heroin for awhile, and when Pandora expressed dismay at this he brushed it off, telling her it takes years and years to become addicted to heroin. The conversation ended there, with me holding the book in disbelief, because it only took my daughter three months to become addicted. I know it's just a book and it's one character's opinion, but it threw me completely out of the story for awhile.

I love Lionel Shriver's writing, her voice. The only other book of hers I'd read previously was WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, which was harrowing. At first I thought BIG BROTHER, compared to WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, was a much lighter and easygoing read, but in the end it wasn't by much. That other book had some elements in the ending that took me by surprise also, so now I wonder if she throws that curve at you in all her books.

The narrative is in first person from Pandora's point of view, and it's a wonderful character study as she fills us in on her past, her marriage, her relationship with her brother and father and her non-relationship with her younger sister. Having Edwin living in her home and seeing the mess he's made of his life causes her to reflect and examine her own life. She loves her husband, and he adores her. But eventually she's backed into a corner of whether to put her brother or her husband first. She often felt Fletcher wasn't as supportive as he could have been. I felt Fletcher was pushed to his limit, and when he finally delivered that ultimatum to Pandora I couldn't blame him one bit. Pandora was so caught up in trying to fix her brother she didn't maintain her marriage so of course it began to break as well.

Overall, a very affecting book. I think I'll look at obesity through clearer eyes now. But I'm not actually sure if that's true. 

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