Lionel Shriver’s fiction has a major streak of darkness running through it. Some of the subjects she’s covered in her past novels include teenage mass murderers, terminal illness, and European terrorism. But she usually manages to insert some (admittedly very black) humor into such bleak subject matter, and her characters, if not always likable, are well drawn and pull you into the story.
Big Brother is no exception. The set-up here is a pair of estranged siblings — Pandora (and I don’t think Shriver chose that name lightly) is a former caterer who has recently been wildly successful at her business of making customized talking dolls. Her brother Edison has always been the cool one, with a solid career as a jazz pianist, but they’ve been out of touch for a few years. Pandora gets a call from one of Edison’s friends, hinting that maybe she should get in touch with him. She extends an open-ended invitation to him to stay with her family (including inflexible health fanatic husband Fletcher, and his two teenagers), opening a (sorry!) Pandora’s box of trouble that’s impossible to close.
Here, she picks him up at the airport:
While passengers threaded from the arrivals hall and clumped around the belt, I loitered from a step back. In front of me, a lanky man in neat khaki slacks — with a tennis racket slung over a shoulder and the remnants of a summer tan — was conversing with a slender brunette…
“I can’t believe they gave him a middle seat,” said the tennis player.
“I was grateful when you offered to switch,” said the woman. “I was totally smashed against the window. But letting him have the aisle didn’t help you much.”…
“What gets me,” the woman grumbled as luggage emerged on the belt “is we all get the same baggage allowances. Our friend in aisle seventeen was packing a quarter ton in carry-on. I swear, next time they try to charge me extra because one pair of shoes has pushed me over twenty-six pounds, I’m going to offer to eat them… Oh, that’s mine…By the way, on the plane with that guy, what I really couldn’t stand? Was the smell.”
I was relieved the woman’s suitcase had arrived, since the pariah whom she and her seatmate had so cruelly disparaged must have been the very large gentleman whom two flight attendants were rolling into baggage claim in an extra-wide wheelchair. A curious glance in the heavy passenger’s direction pierced me with a sympathy so searing I might have been shot. Looking at the man was like falling into a hole, and I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.
“Yo, don’t recognize your own brother?”
From here on out, Pandora is running between her brother, trying to figure out what’s happened to him and how to reverse it, and her increasingly pissed off husband, who rapidly gets to the “it’s him or me” stage. Along the way, she has to ask herself some hard questions: what do I owe my brother? is it possible to will him back into caring for himself? who gets priority, my husband or my brother? and who takes care of me in the meantime?
The plot takes a couple of sharp turns towards the end. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Shriver did have a brother who was morbidly obese.
author photo: Steve Forrest for the New York Times