On this wet, grey, rainy Sunday morning, I’ve got no sweet treat, homemade or otherwise, to accompany my lonely cup of steaming chai tea, no date square from City Café, no vanilla scone from Future Bakery, no gingerbread biscotti from that small bakery in Erin, not even a slice of my own homemade date bread. Ah well, the tea is delicious, and maybe I should try to appreciate it more, savouring each sip rather than just gulping it down. Although this may sound like whining, it is actually my way of segueing into today’s post.
My “Friends” book club met on Thursday night to discuss Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. This novel follows successful Iowa entrepreneur Pandora Halfdanarson as she tries to deal with the extended visit of her brother Edison Appaloosa, a washed-up New York jazz pianist who never quite made it big. Pandora’s current family is made up of husband Fletcher, a specialty furniture maker who has filled the basement with unsold pieces, teenaged stepson Tanner, who hates school and wants to quit in order to write screenplays, and stepdaughter Cody, a shy girl who wants to please everyone. When Edison shows up at the Iowa airport, Pandora doesn’t recognize the morbidly obese man being pushed along in a wheelchair by airline staff as her brother, a man she has idolized all her life, remembering him as cool, slick, and attractive. Four years later, he has become an object of public ridicule and Pandora is put in a position that threatens her own family as she must decide how to help her brother before it is too late and he eats himself to death. There is so much in this novel to discuss, that one meeting is not nearly enough time to cover everything. This book is about relationships, and how we deal with those we love; it is about responsibility, and how we offer support to them, while also taking responsibility for ourselves. It is also about dealing with those we do not love, but whose presence in our lives we cannot truly escape. It is about mid-life crisis, and realizing that this is “as good as it gets”. One of my book club members works with people who have addiction issues, and she commented that the weight loss plan Pandora had for Edison and herself was very responsible, one that was realistic and could actually work, taking into consideration not just the weight loss, but also considering why we eat, what purpose food serves, and how those needs could be otherwise met. Shriver went into detail describing Pandora’s experience eating a salmon steak, describing the grainy texture of the flakes against her tongue (I told you my decision to savour my chai tea relates to the content of this post!). We discussed Fletcher, his obsession with cycling and fitness, and determined that, at age 47, he was doing exactly what any other man of that age would do; in fact several of our husbands were doing these same things, though not to the lengths Fletcher was taking them. We talked about their marriage, and thought it was also realistic. One member, who was unable to make it but who email comments to me, was concerned about the way they were dieting, drinking only shakes made from envelopes of protein powders for months at a time. I, too, was disturbed by this method, but I suppose for someone morbidly obese, it would make sense to, as Shriver writes, “eat nothing” for a while rather than trying to eat small portions of healthy food, as personal restraint around food was clearly one of Edison’s issues. We talked, of course, about the ending, and why Shriver would use this technique, what she intended with the original ending and the “real” one. I have read this book before, and I remember getting to the “fake” ending and feeling somewhat disappointed, then reading the “real” ending. My first response to that was, “This was a cop-out; she couldn’t decide how to end it, so she used both options”. But as I thought about it more, I decided that it was brilliant! How many times have we made major decisions and regretted the outcomes, and these regrets haunt us as we imagine how things “could have been”? I’ve certainly had this experience, and sometime, if we imagine a different outcome often enough, it becomes almost reality. As I was reading this book, I thought that Shriver was dissecting the relationships we have with others, particularly family members, as well as the decisions we make involving those we love, decisions we make every day and don’t really think about them. Shriver has a way of describing them that is exactly right – while her writing is complex and often difficult to understand (one of the members said she had to have a dictionary nearby!), in the end, she gets to the heart of the issue in exactly the right way. She also uses words in a unique way, such as when she talks about Edison’s “slow suicide by pie”. One member said that this book helped her understand what kind of books she likes: she pointed out that this book didn’t have much of a plot, but was intensely character-driven. She enjoyed this book so much, she’s moved on to Shriver’s Orange-prize winning novel, We Need toTalk About Kevin. We also talked about the way Shriver describes society’s values, and how we make snap judgments of others based on first appearances, particularly regarding weight. When Pandora first weighs herself before they start their liquid diet, she responds with amazement and denial. Shriver writes: “(T)he weigh-in was now subject to the most ruthless of interpretations. I believed – and could not understand why I believed this, since I didn’t believe it – that the number on the dial was a verdict on my very character. It appraised whether I was strong, whether I was self-possessed, whether I was someone anyone else would conceivably wish to be.” (p. 230) Due to her successful business, Baby Monotonous, Pandora is often asked to give interviews and pose for photo shoots, something she grudgingly endures. These experiences incite her to consider herself as someone others see, making the reader, too, consider this. How often do we look in the mirror every day, but not really see ourselves as others would see us? I think it is healthy to get on with life without obsessing about how we look to others, but I suppose it is also good to take a step back and get outside ourselves sometime and assess who and what we are to other people. Oh boy, there are soooo many things in this book to discuss, but I must stop now or I’ll be at the computer all day! I really wanted to compare Big Brother with We Need to Talk About Kevin, since the one member who is now reading Kevin brought up some similarities. Unfortunately I’ve run out of “writing” time. In closing, Shriver’s brutal honesty will make readers look inward and explore their own character while hoping for the best for Panodra, Edison, Fletcher, and the other characters who populate the pages of this outstanding, thought-provoking novel.
That’s all for today!
Bye for now...