The basics: Big Brother is the story of Pandora, who grew up in Los Angeles with a father who starred on a popular 1970's family sitcom with parallels to her life. She now lives in Iowa with her husband Fletcher, a health nut, and his two children. When her brother Edison, an accomplished jazz pianist, arrives for a visit, Pandora cannot believe how obese her brother has become.
My thoughts: I didn't realize this novel is set in Iowa until I began reading it, and it was a treat. From the point of view of this Iowa transplant, Shriver nailed the details, the positive and the negative, of everyday life in Iowa. Pandora, too, is a fascinating character. Life so many Shriver narrators, she is somewhat brash, refreshingly honest and insightful, and beautifully formed. I did, however, chuckle at her use of the phrase "But, to my horror," because I could imagine almost any Shriver character using that phrase, despite their differences. What Shriver characters also tend to have in common is a clear view of both the world and themselves.
In addition to the fascinating character of Pandora, a woman I'm not sure I would actually want to be friends with, but one who fascinates me, is the powerful theme of family and obligation. As a stepmother and wife, Pandora in some ways feels she owes her brother more than her husband and his family:
"He's a sponger you're related to by accident. I'm your husband by choice. If you 'love' that loudmouth it's a kneejerk genetic thing; I'm supposed to be the real love of your life."This tension is palpable throughout the novel, and it's one I keep coming back to. In most cases, of course, it's not a choice. Your 'chosen' family and the family you were born with can peacefully coexist. But how does it feel to have to choose, on some level, between the two? Shriver explores these ideas beautifully through Pandora, Edison and Fletcher. Each character's perspective makes sense, and their conflicting thoughts and feelings are beautifully realized.
Yet as fascinated as I was with these characters, they never seemed quite real to me. As I read, I got caught up in the ideas more than the stories themselves. I couldn't shake the sense that Shriver had an agenda and is more interested in making her readers think than in telling a story. I'm not opposed to either, but this novel often felt more like an exercise in thinking than a captivating story. Shriver's writing and observations are often profound and challenging, but I can't quite shake the feelings of being somewhat manipulated as I read.
Favorite passage: "If I held few opinions, I did cling to a handful--like the view that facts are not the same as beliefs, and that most people get them confused."
The verdict: I appreciated Big Brother more once I finished it. Is it an accomplished, intelligent, thoughtful novel? Absolutely. Is it one I will continue to think of and ponder? Yes. Was it a novel I loved while reading? Not always. Ultimately, it's a novel I appreciate and respect far more than I enjoyed it.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: June 4, 2013
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours
Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Big Brother from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)
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