Wednesday, June 19, 2013

book review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

The backstory: Lionel Shriver is an author whose work I've enjoyed immensely in the past. After raving about So Much For That (I gave it 5 stars), I also enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin (I gave it 4.5 stars) and The New Republic (I gave it 4 stars.) I'm utterly fascinated with both her work and her as a person, because her books and characters are so distinct.

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.)

Want more? Check out the entire tour schedule and like Lionel Shriver on Facebook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

12 comments:

  1. I sent you an email and messaged you on Twitter. You said you wanted to talk about it. I have mixed feelings about it.

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    1. Moving this discussion to email so I can talk with spoilers;-)

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  2. I'm conflicted about books like these as well - where the main focus seems to be on making readers think than in telling a story. I have enjoyed books like these in the past but clearly I have to be in a "thinking" mood when I read them.

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    1. Yes! And the frustrating thing is, I think Shriver can do both, as in So Much For That. I feel like this novel could have done both too, but it didn't. Ah, well. It certainly made me think about obesity from a variety of (often conflicting) perspectives.

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  3. I haven't yet read the book, but I love your final line in this review--from what I've heard, it seems dead-on. I wonder if you get the impression that Shriver is more about ideas that story here because the plot itself seems insubstantial; it's a collection of interesting people, but what's the central conflict? Of course, maybe that's more clear to those who have read the book. :)

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    1. Thanks! The plot is rather insubstantial. Weight is gained and lost. Riveting, right? Thankfully Shriver is a wonderful writer, as the premise does little for me.

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  4. I've never read Shriver's work, but I saw a video interview with her and was totally fascinated. I will be reading this one unless you have a better place to start?

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    1. Ooh! I think this one would be good to start with. It's not her strongest, but it is a fantastic glimpse into her. My personal favorite is So Much for That. I also adore We Need to Talk About Kevin. It depends if you want to start with the best or the good.

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  5. I love it when an author gets location details so accurate that a native of the area can totally identify with it. Brilliant!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

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  6. I am halfway done and think you are absolutely right that she had an agenda, and then crafted a novel around it.

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  7. Just reading some reviews now that I've written mine, and didn't really realize there was a blog tour going on! I'm linking to your review today. So Much for That blew me away, incredible book, but I liked Big Brother a lot too.

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  8. I'm sort of conflicted about her books because I've heard so many say she has an agenda in each of them. I've read only Kevin which I really liked and then The New Republic which I did not. And now I have no real desire to read any more of her books! :/

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!