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.
Praise For Big Brother: A Novel…
— Washington Post
“The moving (and shocking) finale will have you thinking about the ‘byzantine emotional mathematics’ we all put ourselves through when overwhelmed with family responsibilities.”
“(A) delicious, highly readable novel . . . (which) raises challenging questions about how much a loving person can give to another without sacrificing his or her own well-being.”
— People, People Pick (4 Stars)
“Big Brother is vintage Shriver - observant, unsettling, funny, but also, as Pandora admits, ‘Very, very sad.’”
— Miami Herald
“Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother has the muscle to overpower its readers. It is a conversation piece of impressive heft.”
— New York Times
“The ever-caustic Shriver has great fun at the expense of crash diets and a host of other sacred pop-culture, er, cows. Politically correct it’s not, but Big Brother finds the funny - and the pathos - in fat.”
— USA Today
“Her [Shriver’s] best work--Big Brother is her twelfth novel--presents characters so fully formed that they inhabit her ideas rather than trumpet them.”
— New Republic
“Pandora is a masterly creation.”
— New York Times Book Review
“The diet - the story of a heroically undertaken significant change - is pretty nearly irresistible. But what really powers this story, an outsize look at the most basic of human activities, eating, is a search for the definition, and appreciation, of ‘ordinary life.’”
— Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The latest compelling, humane and bleakly comic novel from the author of We Need to Talk about Kevin.”
— Evening Standard (London)
“A great plot setup that presents an array of targets for Shriver to obliterate with her knife-sharp prose.”
— The Rumpus
“A surprising sledgehammer of a novel”
— The Times (London)
“A gutsy, heartfelt novel”
— Sunday Times (London)
“What would you do for love of a brother? For love of a husband? For love of food? In Big Brother, Shriver’s new and wonderfully timely novel, her heroine wrestles with these vexing questions. Only the scales don’t lie.”
— Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
“The fellowship of Lionel Shriver fanatics is about to grow larger, so to speak. Big Brother, a tragicomic meditation on family and food, may be her best book yet.”
— Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“A searing, addictive novel about the power and limitations of food, family, success, and desire. Shriver examines America’s weight obsession with both razor-sharp insight and compassion.”
— J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine and Commencement
“Brilliantly imagined, beautifully written, and superbly entertaining, Shriver’s novel confronts readers with the decisive question: can we save our loved ones from themselves? A must-read for Shriver fans, this novel will win over new readers as well.”
— Library Journal
“An intelligent meditation on food, guilt, and the real (and imagined) debts we owe the ones we love.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Shriver brilliantly explores the strength of sibling bonds versus the often more fragile ties of marriage.”
“[Shriver] has a knack for conveying subtle shifts in family dynamics. . . . Ms Shriver offers some sage observations. . . . Yet her main gift as a novelist is a talent for coolly nailing down uncomfortable realities.”
— The Economist
“Shriver is brilliant on the novel shock that is hunger. . . . Most of all, though, there’s her glorious, fearless, almost fanatically hard-working prose.”
“Shriver is wonderful at the things she is always wonderful at. Pace and plot. . . . Psychology.”
“Would I recommend Big Brother? Absolutely. It confronts the touchy subject of American lard exuberantly and intelligently; it makes you think about what you put in your mouth and why.”
Harper, 9780061458576, 384pp.
Publication Date: June 4, 2013
About the Author
Lionel Shriver's fiction includes The Mandibles; Property; the National Book Award finalist So Much for That; the New York Times bestseller The Post-Birthday World; and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted for a 2010 film starring Tilda Swinton. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She’s a regular columnist for the Spectator in Britain and Harper’s Magazine in the US. She lives in London and Brooklyn, New York.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
At the beginning of the novel, Pandora says, “I am white rice.” Food has often been used to describe character, often in derogatory ways: “Twinkie,” “Oreo,” “Cracker”, “White bread,” etc. Does what we eat say something about who we are? Going beyond pure sustenance, why is food often so central to our lives? Pandora sees herself as having, “always existed to set off more exciting fare. I was a foil as a girl. I am a foil now.” Why does Pandora believe this about herself? Is it true? What—or rather who—is the more exciting fare that she is talking about? How do you see Pandora?
What was it like for Pandora and her brother Edison to grow up in Hollywood as the daughter of a television star like Travis Appaloosa? Did they like their childhood? How did being the children of a celebrity shape their outlooks on life? Did it contribute to their success or the lack of it?
Talk about Pandora’s marriage to Fletcher and their family life. Are they happy? Is theirs a good marriage? What is your opinion of Fletcher? Why do he and Edison not get along—what is it about each other that makes them opponents in a battle for Pandora? Are Fletcher and Edison very different, or more similar than they’d like to admit? Does it make any sense that these two men would fight over Pandora, when a sibling relationship is not romantic, and you should easily be able to have a husband and a brother?
Pandora’s Baby Monotonous business has made her wealthy. Do you like the Baby Monotonous dolls? Would you want to give one to someone you know? How would you feel if you received one as a gift? What signature expressions would the script of a Monotonous doll of you include?
Pandora is shocked when she sees her brother for the first time in several years. Why? Why did Edison become morbidly obese? Do you think everyone who is overweight is self-destructive?
Just as he’s about to return to his life in New York, Pandora decides to move in with Edison to help him lose weight. Do you agree with her plan? Given the circumstances, is this the best solution for her brother? How does Fletcher react when she tells him? Why isn’t her husband more supportive? What if it were an elderly parent instead of a brother who needed her? Is it odd for adult siblings to be as close as she and Edison are?
She and Edison go on a liquid protein diet. Is this plan realistic for someone as overweight as Edison? How did moving in with her brother affect Pandora’s life and her relationships with her husband and her stepchildren?
Where you surprised at the twist that comes late in the book? Why do you think the author wrote the story this way? What other endings might she have written? How did it influence your view of the characters? Did you feel cheated, or did feel you still got to keep the story in “Down,” as well as getting to read a shorter, sadder one in “Out”? Should Pandora have done more for Edison? How much do we owe to the people we love? Do we have a responsibility to help those we care about? How do you define that responsibility—and where does it stop? How far would you go to help a loved one?
Which of the characters in the novel do you most sympathize with? Do you feel sorry for Edison or does he make you angry? Are all of them victims in some way of food? Do you think Pandora ultimately breaks free of that victimization?
How do the teenage children react to Edison? Do you think they will become adults with eating/food issues? What are they learning from the adults in their lives?
Big Brother is set in Iowa, with references to Hollywood and New York. Why do you think the author chose Middle America as her setting? Why has obesity become such a problem in our country? Do you think getting fat is just about willpower? What about the ingredients in processed foods and marketing jumbo size portions? How much does American industry have a role in both creating and increasing this problem? Why is food and weight so central to our culture, not only in the media but in how we think about ourselves and who we are? Can we change this—recalibrate our relationship to eating and food?
In addition to our cultural obsession with weight, Lionel Shriver also explores our fascination with celebrity. How do the two influence and impact each other? Why are so many movie stars so thin? Can you be too thin? How do you interpret Pandora’s assertion about both food and career success, “We are meant to be hungry”?
Think about Fletcher. He deprives himself of his wife’s amazing cooking, eventually spurning even the tiny taster plates she leaves out for him. Why can’t he enjoy the smallest of indulgences? Is Pandora justified in taking her husband’s turning up his nose at her cooking as a personal rejection? How does Fletcher use his impeccably healthy diet and fitness regime in their relationship?
How do you feel about your own weight? If you’d like to be thinner—as it seems so many people do—is that for health reasons, or do you simply think you’d be more attractive? Is it possible your size is too important to you? Don’t some of us make ourselves miserable over just a few extra pounds? After all, what do other people value about you—what you look like? Or are your friends more apt to treasure your generosity, your wisdom, your sense of humor?
How does overeating differ from other addictions—to alcohol or to drugs? Is obesity the sign of a character failing? Why does it still seem OK to make jokes about fat people when we now frown on, say, making fun of people for being gay?
What made you or your group choose Big Brother? How did reading the story compare to your expectations? What did you take away from reading Big Brother?