Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver (2013)

I wasn't sure I really wanted to read this book.  It just did not sound appealing to me: a forty-something woman with a successful business, an attractive health-nut husband and two great step-children decides to put all of it on hold (and at risk) in order to hole up with her morbidly obese older brother in a rental apartment and supervise a boot-camp style liquid fast to help him lose the weight.  Ugh.  It sounded really grim.

But the other day I was at the library and there it sat, on the shelf.  Waiting for me.  So I took it home and began to read.  And yes, a lot of it is grim and depressing.  There is also a lot of what I would call social commentary about the current obesity epidemic as well as rumination by the narrator about her own body image.  Lionel Shriver is obviously a writer who is well read and very well informed and enjoys sneaking little tidbits of knowledge into her books; I particularly enjoyed two shout-outs to Belgium in the novel: she mentions not only the BMI or Quetelet index ("invented by some Belgian in the 1800's") but also the Higgs boson (for which fellow Belgian Fran├žois Englert won the Nobel Physics prize this year).
But I can't really say I felt empathy for any of the characters in the book, except the step-daughter, who was the only one who seemed to genuinely love her obese uncle.  I raced through the book to find out what happened - reading it was like following a season of Biggest Loser, and the best part of the book, just like in the show, is the final weigh-in and the short lived celebration that follows.  Without wanting to spoil the plot twist at the end, I will say that I read the last paragraph of the final chapter several times.  At the end of the day, the book reveals its core question to be that of how much we are to hold ourselves responsible for other people and their problems.

As Shriver's main character, Pandora, says in that final paragraph: "It is impossible to gauge what you owe people.  Anyone of course, but especially the blood relation, for as soon as you begin to calculate the amount you're obliged to give - as soon as you begin to keep track, to parcel the benevolence out - you're done for...In preference to tackling the byzantine emotional mathematics of my exact responsibility for my brother, it was simpler to adjudge that I bore none.  But nothing in this life is free.  Having dodged paying the piper while [he] was alive, I pay now instead.  I pay every day."

I think what Pandora learned from her experience with her brother is that you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't, and that no matter what you might do to try to help someone, you're setting yourself up to be crucified in the end.   Which makes me think of the lines from a favorite Aimee Mann song: "Those eggshells I've been treading couldn't spare me a beheading." People want you to be involved and care about their problems, but they don't necessarily appreciate you stepping in and trying to solve them for them in the way you think might be most helpful. Which doesn't automatically imply that the ideal solution is to do nothing, either. It is a huge conundrum.

Perhaps Pandora would have done better to get some co-dependence counseling.  But then there wouldn't have been any drama for a book plot, would there?