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By Lionel Shriver. Harper. 384 pages. $26.99
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Food exists for us to eat, yet it consumes us.
We make food the centerpiece of our holidays and vow to work off the calories later. Fast-food restaurants cater to our desire to be healthy with salads and wraps, but gratify our greater lust for crisp, salty fries. Gyms remind us that money we spend on snacks could easily go toward organic chicken breasts. We silently agree as we head to the treadmill to work off Saturday night’s extra-large popcorn at the movies.
Pandora Halfdanarson understands people’s complicated relationship with food. She made it her business when she ran a catering company, and she’s living it now with husband Fletcher, a “nutritional Nazi” who foreswears sugar; and their two children, who are fed up with meals of whole grains and vegetables. Pandora is caught in the middle, a position she’s used to — she’s the middle child who lives in the middle of the country, sandwiched between her 1970s TV star father in California and her hip jazz musician brother in New York.
Pandora is used to big brother Edison’s big talk of international tours and gigs with famous musicians. Pandora herself prefers peaceful obscurity, but ironically, she’s the family member who found fame as the entrepreneur of a novelty doll company.
That hasn’t changed her close relationship with Edison. When he calls needing a place to stay, Pandora invites him to Iowa for a couple of months. She hasn’t seen him in four years, but remembers his sleek, loping figure with high cheekbones and slightly wild blond hair. The reality shocks her: Edison emerges in the airport in a wheelchair, the cheekbones hidden under hills of flesh. He weighs close to 400 pounds and is more than twice the size he used to be.
Ever the loyal and supportive younger sister, Pandora tries to ease Edison into her family. Living with someone of that size is an adjustment. Edison barely fits in the car. Furniture cracks beneath him. He can’t always manage the stairs and often sleeps on the sofa. Pandora rearranges the dining area so he can fit — an area crammed every mealtime with more food than Pandora thought possible. Her daughter is compassionate, her teenage son contemptuous. Fletcher, whose rigid personality clashes most with Edison’s casual carelessness, is appalled.
Pandora realizes Edison’s overeating is the symptom of a larger problem, and sees it as her duty to help him. Fletcher sees shades of his drug addict ex-wife in Edison’s relationship with food and wants his home back to normal. He gives Pandora an ultimatum: him or Edison. Pandora must decide which is worse: the destruction of her family, or the destruction of her brother as he slowly eats himself to death.
Lionel Shriver doesn’t shy from difficult contemporary issues. Her breakthrough novel “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is about a boy who perpetrates a school massacre; her latest oeuvre, “Big Brother,” is an intimate look at the complexities of size and our attitudes toward it.
Intellectually, we know people’s worth isn’t tied to their weight, but as Pandora muses, we size people up literally, “this mental weigh-in a ridiculous shorthand estimation of how we were faring in other spheres.”
Although Edison has plenty of faults, his weight is the funnel through which criticisms pass, his extra pounds of flesh deemed as much a character flaw as his messiness, carelessness and jealousy. Fletcher is guilty of extremism in the opposite direction, his unyielding, stiff personality manifest in his strict diet.
Pandora, whose relationship with food is arguably the healthiest, falls in between her husband and her brother. She is neither slim nor particularly overweight. Still, as she wryly observes, “it’s taken as a given that Mr. and Ms. Average are dissatisfied with their weights, avoidant of mirrors, inclined to take their dress or jean size as a personal indictment.” She is as keen to lose her extra few dozen pounds as she is for Edison to lose a couple of hundred.
Woven into the weight discussion is the siblings’ relationship, their closeness born from an unconventional childhood in which real life merged with television. Fletcher doesn’t understand Pandora’s dedication to Edison, but it’s one most little sisters will recognize.
The question is how much strain the bond can take before it breaks. And when someone with an addictive personality like Edison’s feeds off his sister’s support and stability, what happens when she tries to pull away?
These are uncomfortable topics, but Shriver writes about them boldly and confidently. She is neither overtly sensitive nor unkind, and has a genuine talent for articulating difficult concepts. “Big Brother” is one of those few books where not a word is wasted. The story moves briskly from the beginning. The ending is unexpected; some would call it a cop-out, although it is carefully thought out. The strong emotions it stirs are a testament to Shriver’s lifelike, sympathetic characters.
“Big Brother” is for people who enjoy food, try to lose weight, wonder how far they would go to help a loved one. It is a book for us all.
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