Lionel Shriver, 2013
From the acclaimed author of the National Book Award finalist So Much for That and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin comes a striking new novel about siblings, marriage, and obesity.
When Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at her local Iowa airport, she literally doesn't recognize him. In the four years since the siblings last saw each other, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened?
And it's not just the weight. Imposing himself on Pandora's world, Edison breaks her husband Fletcher's handcrafted furniture, makes overkill breakfasts for the family, and entices her stepson not only to forgo college but to drop out of high school.
After the brother-in-law has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: It's him or me. Putting her marriage and adopted family on the line, Pandora chooses her brother—who, without her support in losing weight, will surely eat himself into an early grave.
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 we'll sacrifice to rescue single members of our families, and whether it's ever possible to save loved ones from themselves. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 18, 1957
• Where—Gastonia, North Carolina, USA
• Education—B.A., Barnard College; M.F.A., Columbia
• Awards—Orange Prize
• Currently—lives in London, England.
Lionel Shriver (aka Margaret Ann Shriver) is an American journalist and author born to a deeply religious family (her father is a Presbyterian minister). At age seven, Shriver decided she would be a writer. At age 15, she informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel because she did not like the name she had been given, and as a tomboy felt that a conventionally male name fitted her better.
Shriver was educated at Barnard College, Columbia University (BA, MFA). She has lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and currently in London. She is married to jazz drummer Jeff Williams.
Shriver had published six novels before the 2003 We Need to Talk About Kevin. She called it her "make or break" novel, referring to the years of "professional disappointment" and "virtual obscurity" preceding it.
Its publication in 2003, We Need to Talk About Kevin made Shriver a household name. Beautiful and deeply disturbing, the novel asks one of the toughest questions a parent can ask of themselves: have I failed my child? When Kevin Khatchadourian murders nine of his classmates at school, his vibrant mother Eva is forced to face, openly, her son's monstrous acts and her role in them.
Interestingly enough, her agent rejected the manuscript. Shriver shopped her book around on her own, and eight months later it was picked up by a smaller publishing company. The book created a good deal of controversy, but achieved success through word of mouth. As Publisher's Weekly comments, "A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far." Kevin won Shriver the 2005 Orange Prize.
Her experience as a journalist is wide having written for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Economist, contributed to the Radio Ulster program Talkback and many other publications. In July 2005, Shriver began writing a column for the Guardian, in which she has shared her opinions on maternal disposition within Western society, the pettiness of British government authorities, and the importance of libraries (she plans to will whatever assets remain at her death to the Belfast Library Board, out of whose libraries she checked many books when she lived in Northern Ireland).
The Post-Birthday World was issued in 2007. The novel uses a parallel-universe structure to follow one woman's future as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men. In 2010 Shriver released So Much for That, which was subsequently named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Her work The New Republic came out in 2012, and Big Brother, inspired by the morbid obesity of one of her brothers, in 2013. (Adapted from Barnes & Noble and Wikipedia [retrieved 6/11/2013].)
As a writer, Shriver's talents are many: She's especially skilled at playing with readers' reflexes for sympathy and revulsion, never letting us get too comfortable with whatever firm understanding we think we have of a character.
Jeff Turrentine - Washington Post
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] 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.
[Shriver’s] best work--Big Brother is her twelfth novel—presents characters so fully formed that they inhabit her ideas rather than trumpet them.
[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. (Five stars.)
Shriver consistently delivers whip-smart, often witty dialogue and pungent character insights that add powerful momentum to what, at its heart, remains a simple story. Only a writer of Shriver's talent and courage would attempt a denoument as daring as the one that plays out over the novel's last 15 pages. She succeeds by creating something that does much more than tie up plot threads and usher her characters off stage. Instead, she makes us appreciate anew how profound the emotional and psycological issues of family are, deepening our empathy along with admiration for the unquestionable skill she displays in doing it. —Harvey Freedenberg
Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) returns to the family in this intelligent meditation on food, guilt, and the real (and imagined) debts we owe the ones we love.... In Big Brother, nothing reveals character more scathingly than food. Early in the book, the nearly 400-pound Edison arrives... [and] brings the novel energy as well as an occasionally unpalatable maudlin drama.... If this devotion and [his sister] Pandora’s increasing success with Edison’s diet plan sometimes seem chirpily false, a late reveal provides devastating justification.
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.
A woman is at a loss to control her morbidly obese brother in the latest feat of unflinching social observation from Shriver. Pandora, the narrator of this smartly turned novel, is a happily settled 40-something... But she's aghast to discover [her brother has] ballooned...to nearly 400 pounds.... The book is largely about weight and America's obesity epidemic.... But the book truly shines as a study of family relationships.... A masterful, page-turning study of complex relationships among our bodies, our minds and our families.
1. 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?
2. 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?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. 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?
6. 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?
7. 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?
8. 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?
9. 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?
10. 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?
11. 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?
12. 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"?
13. 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?
14. 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?
15. 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?
16. 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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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