Monday, August 18, 2014

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Review based on ARC.

Anyone who was around me while I was forcing my way through this book suffered for my having to finish it.  Why did I have to finish it? Because it was an advanced readers' copy, and I felt like I needed to finish the whole book in order to fairly review it.

But oh, the pain.
So, the premise. I was interested in this book and definitely wanted to read it because of its premise! (this is no more spoiler than what appears on the back cover) Main character (Pandora) picks up her brother (Edison) from the airport after not having seen him for several years and doesn't even recognize him at first because he's gained so much weight. On top of now being a morbidly obese person, the narrator also takes issue with her brother's other developed-habits, such as breaking furniture, convincing high school kids to drop out of high school, etc. So she has to decide between her husband and her brother, which is essentially what the book is about--that choice and the repercussions thereof.

Ok, yeah, sounds interesting! Good of her to take on a less developed theme in current literature and try to tackle the psychological reactions that people have in these types of tough situations. So I was excited.

Then I got the book and started reading. And this is what it was like: Imagine if I told you that a very interesting special was going to be on tv, but it was only going to air once and you couldn't record it because you don't have a DVR or anything. So you are excited about the special and are eager to get to the story, but as soon as it starts playing, your roommate just gets up and stands in front of the tv and starts waxing poetic about anything and everything---his/her opinions, theories, views on politics, social issues, his/her childhood, etc. Just keeps talking. And then they finally wind down and sit down and you are watching the special again, and just as you start getting into the special, s/he gets back up again and does it all over again.  Over and over and over.  That's what it was like reading this book. Shriver (or, purportedly, her narrator) just could. not. shut. up. shut up. shut up. It was infuriating attempting to read the story with the narrator constantly streaming her look-how-smart-I-am consciousness. And yeah, she had a few interesting things to say and said a few things in interesting ways, but I just couldn't CARE after she just kept GOING and going and going.

So around page 100, I decided I couldn't do it anymore. The book was literally giving me a headache and I was doing anything to avoid reading. I took a breather.

After ~a week, I decided, no, I can finish this. And so I did. Unfortunately, not only was Shriver's writing style infuriating, but her story was a disaster. This was one of the least convincing attempts at "understanding" fat people that I've ever been confronted with. It felt like Shriver literally knew NO-ONE who had ever really struggled with a lot of weight. And I understand that her real-life brother died from morbid obesity, weighing approximately what she puts her "big brother" at in the book, but it doesn't appear as if she spent any real time with her brother or talked to anyone who's ever spent substantial time around people who struggle with this kind of weight issue.

As someone with actual perspective here, I can assure the unknowing reader that Shriver is way off the mark. And it's offensive. And, frankly, it takes a lot to offend me. Shriver's fat guy is reckless, selfish, unaware, and stupid. Of course, because he's fat, right? It was a childish viewpoint and impossible for me to read without a scowl on my face.

So what's extra unbelievable about this whole thing is that Edison supposedly exhibits his I'm-a-disgusting-slob person while in the house of not only an essential stranger (his brother-in-law), but also while being openly judged and loathed by said-stranger. Fat people don't do that, Ms. Shriver. But yeah, supposedly, this guy will eat powdered sugar straight from the bag, but in the process just gets powdered sugar everywhere because of course he's a slob; takes a first serving at a first meal that is more than half of a casserole so that others are left hungry because of course he's hungry, stupid, and selfish; insists on making the rest of the skinny family inordinate amounts of terribly unhealthy food because he's inconsiderate, pushy, and stupid; etc.

And every single thing that "Pandora" (or, perhaps, really the author?) says about her brother, who she supposedly loves, comments on his fatness. Like, WE GET IT. HE's FAT. He doesn't just have a big jacket, his jacket is so big it is like carrying a sleeping bag. He doesn't just sit on furniture, he breaks it. Oh and of course he doesn't just sh**, he poops so much that there's literally poop chunks floating down the hall. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Not to mention the fact that his gaining just over 200 pounds in 4 years does not actually match up with what he supposedly eats in a day.

And this is all just in the first half of the book, and I haven't even touched on the celebrity childhood or her famous company, which she also insists on talking about ad nauseum. At page 176, I mistakenly believed it was going to get better. Something actually changed. It wasn't just going to be 400 pages of Shriver...  er, Pandora judging fat people but pretending to care about them. So narrator has to make a choice... choose her jerk of a husband or her fat disgusting slob of a brother.

What choice does she make? How does it turn out? What're the spoilers that everyone is so carefully avoiding? Here's the non-spoiler answer: who. cares.  Take it from someone who suffered through reading the whole thing... it didn't get better. It's not worth knowing. It's worse than pathetic. (if you really want the spoilers? go to bottom and highlight text to reveal)

In sum, I would recommend this book to literally no one.  I would not recommend this book to anyone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unaware and offensive. I would not recommend this book to anyone who knows someone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unhelpful, patronizing, and offensive. I would not recommend this book to someone who knows no one who has this kind of weight issue because it will simply give them the wrong idea about how fat people are in the so-called privacy of their own homes. Just say no. No.

ONE of five stars. A touch of credit can be given because she's poetic with her language.





1. she chooses her brother. and is annoying and holier-than-thou in her choice. so she moves into a separate apartment with her brother to go on a crazy crash diet with him for a year. And I mean crazy. We're talking 6 months of less than 600 calories a day. And of course no one cheats. And they lose all kinds of weight. And then they have to struggle with reintroducing food. Etc. And than jerk husband wants a divorce. And crazy fat brother is happy. But then after all the weight is lost, husband wants Pandora back and Edison loses it. and eats a chocolate cake. like the slob that he is. smearing chocolate all over his face and clothes, etc. And then gains all the weight back. All of it.

2. But wait, Shriver thought she'd try to be clever. None of that happened. She didn't go live in an apt w/ her brother, she just let him leave. And be fat. and die. 



I mean. really? People enjoy this?


Chloe Groom said...

Just linked to this from your Amazon review to see the spoilers. Are you serious? It's even worse than I thought! I got up to the bit where they've moved into the apartment and he cheats by eating pizza before I finally gave in to my impulse to fling the book against the wall. Now I see that I got away easy. This might actually be the worst book I've ever tried to read! Thanks for saving me the time I would have wasted finishing it.

Reader said...

I know! I'm glad my pain could be of service to you! ;)

Janice said...

But how do I view the spoilers? I came from Amazon also.

Janice said...

But how do I show the spoilers? I came from Amazon also.

Reader said...

Oh no! It appears that highlighting the text does not appear on mobile devices (though it should still work on your computer). Here, I'll edit the post and go "old school" with just lots of SPOILER warnings ;)