Saturday, October 5, 2013

Big Brother: A Novel by Lionel Shriver

A good friend, Charlena Vargas Prada, recently sent me an email asking for a quote for the back cover of her new book, Mrs. VP luvs Shakspeer. At the end of her email she said, “By the way, I’ve heard that Big Brother is good.” I had been sniffing around that book for a while myself, and Charlena’s book recommendations are reliable, so I ordered it up post haste!

Big Brother: A Novel by another one of those female writers with a male name, Lionel Shriver (pictured), is a story within a story, within a story and they’re all good. 

First, you have the story of Pandora and her husband and his two kids, a teen boy and a pre-teen girl from a previous marriage, and their strained family dynamics. This story, along with Shriver’s exceptional way with words would have been enough to lure me page-to-page.

Pandora has achieved some fame for inventing “Baby Monotonous,” custom-made dolls that look like, and when you pull the string in their back, talk like, whoever the purchaser specifies, repeating the phrases that characterize the person the doll portrays.

I found this piece of the book singularly titillating, making me wonder what phrases I would include if I did a doll, let’s say, of my husband. Maybe his doll would say, “It’s not in here, because he can never find anything, or “Shit, that’s hot!” because he can’t seem to remember that pots on the stove are hot. It also made me wonder what my doll would say. 

Pandora’s husband Fletcher is a stay-at-home carpenter who makes peculiar furniture no one actually buys, but he is nevertheless uncompromising in his art. And his latest fixation is cycling obsessively and only eating food on the far, far end of the healthy food spectrum. Clearly Fletcher is struggling to find some personal honor with his children and his wife.

The second story is about the relationship between Pandora and her jazz musician brother, Edison, who ran away to NYC when he was 17, and has since perpetually found himself just a few grooves away from any kind of fame.

Pandora gets a call from a friend of Edison’s saying that Edison needs help, but not why. Very much against her husband’s wishes, Pandora sends a plane ticket to the brother she has always idolized. When she goes to the airport to pick him up, she can’t find him. He’s standing right beside her, but she doesn't recognize him because he has gained 300 pounds. Her big brother is very big.

Pandora makes the decision to become her brother’s diet coach, to the point of leaving her husband and stepchildren to move into an apartment with Edison for a year. Eventually the proverbial and actual elephant in the room forces Pandora and Edison to talk about why they are who and what they are, resulting in some intriguing questions we can’t help but also ask ourselves.

The third story is about our bodies, our self-image, our relationship with food, fat, exercise, why we eat and what we tell ourselves about food and eating. Anyone who has ever weighed even a pound more than they want will relate to this part of the book.

What happens to Pandora and Edison and Fletcher? Well, in a surprise ending we find out that what binds people together is not always what we think. If you want to find out what that means, I guess you’ll just have to read the book, and I highly recommend that you do.

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