Big Brother: Families, Loyalty, and Obesity

Lionel Shriver is known for exploring difficult topics in her books, and Big Brother is no exception. Shriver plays with our pre-conceived notions about food, fad diets, and weight — stirring the passions of her readers, as usual, no matter how they feel about the subject.

Without suggesting easy answers, Shriver makes us consider the role of personal responsibility, environment, and genetics in weight and obesity — as well as how much one can really do for another person. But reading Big Brother is necessarily colored by the knowledge that Shriver’s brother died from obesity four years ago and that Shriver herself is a fitness addict — biking everywhere, running nine miles every other night, and doing 130 press-ups, 200 side crunches, 500 sit-ups, and 3,000 star jumps every day. She has expressed deep remorse at not intervening with her brother on the subject of obesity.

She is also indignant about bias against people with obesity.

Amid issues of identity, family estrangement, and the balance of power in a marriage, Shriver’s heroine, Pandora Halfdanarson, invites her oddball, out-of-town brother, Edison, to stay with her, against her husband’s wishes. What Pandora doesn’t realize about Edison is that in the four years since she’s seen him last, he’s gained several hundred pounds. Pandora makes it her life’s goal to get him slimmed down. She soon reaches a point where she must choose between her brother and husband.

Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, obsessed with maintaining his physique, lives an ascetic life, taking little pleasure from food. He spends all his free time biking in order to hide from the problems in their marriage. Pandora, in an effort to bond with her brother and lead by example, first gains weight and then loses it.

One of Amazon’s most prolific reviewers, B. Case, sums up the most important thing to come out of Shriver’s exploration in Big Brother: “This is one of those books that gained greater favor with me after I finished it. At first, I thought it was a strong four-star book. But the book’s moral theme kept my mind spinning. I couldn’t stop feeling like I desperately wanted to discuss this book with somebody. I wanted — no, I needed — to talk about obesity…in general, and also within the context of this book. That’s when the book moved in my mind from four to five stars. Obesity is an important issue and we need to weigh our individual moral responsibility to help resolve what has become a national epidemic.”

Click here to read the first chapter of Big Brother, click here and here to read reviews from NPR and the Washington Post. Click here to browse impassioned reader feedback regarding Big Brother on Amazon, and here to read Shriver’s thoughts on her brother’s life and death. Big Brother is one of a number of recent novels to include central characters with obesity, something you can read more about on ConscienHealth by clicking here.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, Published by Harper, June 2013

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.