Big Brother by Lionel Shriver is about a BIG brother. The conversation at the airport of two passengers forewarns us. A big man has sat in the middle seat and taken half of each on either side of him and he smells. As Pandora, collects her big brother, Edison, from the Cedar Rapids airport after his flight from Detroit, she is shocked to see him in a wheelchair. Last time she saw Edison, four years ago, he weighed 165 pounds. Now he weighed 368 pounds. He was coming to Iowa, cause he has nowhere else to go. Pandora, childless, is the stepmom to two teenagers, Tanner, seventeen, and Cody. Their father, Fletcher, makes furniture and helps Pandora in the kitchen, which was a selling point for her. Now Edison, the BIG brother is coming to visit. The family goes through denial, loss, pity, anger and other emotions as they spend the next two months under the same roof.
Pandora and Edison’s dad, Travis, was the star of a television program called Joint Custody. It helped as a metaphor for Pandora to explain the relationship of parents to their children and the relationship of siblings. Sibling relationship was the strongest one out there. It was this sibling relationship that allowed her to finally discuss weight with Edison. He got fat because he didn’t give a shit. He didn’t realize this selfishness of his had a negative effect on those around him, like her husband Fletcher and the two kids. Don’t go food shopping with Edison and don’t let him cook breakfast. This slowly becomes a very agonizing story. Edison insults people, breaks furniture by sitting on it, pigs out when everyone is at work or school, and does nothing about his weight or his imposition on others. His sister is an enabler. She restocks the emptied refrigerator, she cleans up after him, and she forsakes her family for her brother. His visit turns into two months before his European Jazz Tour, which actually doesn’t exist and he has no place to return to in NYC. When we discover they are stuck with the “blob” that has no self-respect for him and little for others, we wonder about his sister who is trying to help Edison and save her marriage at the same time. It has to be hard since Fletcher is a health freak and a bike rider while Edison is just a fat slob. During family conversations Edison downplays the ideas of college for Tanner, undermines the parents constantly, and continues to divide the family he has moved in with. His size has thrown life out of balance in this house.
This is powerful story of obesity and its effect on family. Pandora has enraged everyone with her protecting and enabling Edison. She asks what is she to do? Simple answer is the same thing any family would do who had a family member with a drinking or drug problem. Intervene. Being the protective sister made things worse, not better. The second half of the book is a guide to assisting another in weight loss, tough love. We are torn about the fat man. We understand the prejudice against obesity and we sympathize. However, as we learn more we see a selfish, overindulgent, pain in the ass who only himself to blame, not genes or environment or whatever for his obese state. Edison is not a nice or likeable person thin or fat, that’s a problem and then he gets fat. His best asset is his sister and her best asset is Oliver. The success story of the diet is just to unbelievable as we learn. Edison is detestable, difficult to like. The moral of the story is we are not our brother’s keeper.