If my last book (The Fireman) surprised me with relevance to our current political climate when I was looking for escapism, this one had the exact opposite effect. I bought the book on remainder on the strength of Shriver’s work, having loved Double Fault, The Post-Birthday World, and of course, We Need to Talk About Kevin (thank god I read that one before getting pregnant). I didn’t so much as look at the back cover and had no clue as to the book’s subject matter, but given the election my thoughts leaned toward George Orwell rather than Julia Child. The straining belt on the cover should have been a tipoff, the book is about our protagonist’s literal big brother, an older sibling who has become morbidly obese.
I honestly didn’t know how I felt about this book until reading the PS sections.
Shriver is a magnificent writer, and her depiction of interfamilial relationships always feels natural even in some of her less successful novels; you understand not just the characters but how why and how they respond to one another the way they do. When Pandora picks up her brother Edison from the airport and no longer recognizes him under the weight of 230 additional pounds, the reader feels her heartbreak. It’s not just faded looks, it’s his impaired mobility, the cost of eating, and the limitations and judgements others place on him by seeing him only as a 400 pound grotesque rather than the brother she knows and loves. She — and Shriver –are obviously empathetic to the character, and want him to succeed in Pandora’s plan to help him lose weight not just for the sake of the sacrifices (including putting her marriage at risk) Pandora makes to help him.
That said, the book does not shy away from depicting Edison as grotesque, and his physical state is in part a manifestation of his character flaws; he is with Pandora having burned bridges with all his other friends, too proud to ask even her for help, the trip having been prompted by a roommate throwing him out. He is selfish, gluttonous for attention and food, and spiteful. He lacks self control; even his career as a jazz musician echoes his inability to stay in his own lane, playing music that riffs on an established piece and goes off the rails.
It was hard to read this and not wonder if Shriver was fat shaming. Edison is a deeply flawed person, and those flaws directly contribute to his girth; it is difficult not to construe this as a judgement. Pandora’s ascetic husband Fletcher serves as a counterpoint to offset this, being so health-driven as to appear utterly joyless, but it’s hard to be as appalled by brown rice and steamed broccoli as it is a stack of chocolate chip pancakes gone spongy with syrup. Only one inspires true revulsion. (Incidentally, shriver may have missed a calling as a food writer. Despite a large chunk of the book being descriptions of food, each meal is so vivid that the reader understands instantly how it is too much, or uninspired, or unappetizing, and they’re not all on Edison’s plate). Moreover, the differences in diets do not merely serve to illustrate the extremes of indulgence and deprivation, but the difficulties in opposites coexisting. Fletcher doubles down on sparseness the more irritated he becomes by his brother in law, and Pandora finds it difficult to resist some of the excesses her brother has brought into her home; a frequent theme in the book is how easy it is to resist temptation if you never present yourself with any
Without spoiling the ending – which is more than whether or not Edison loses the weight – I closed the tale still conflicted. It was the equivalent of having eaten one of the excessive plates captured in the book. Everything was well executed, and compelling, and the ingredients were all appealing, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly ill at the thought that it wasn’t good for you. I have obese friends, and wondered what they would think of the book. I used to be overweight myself, for that matter. So did Shriver’s brother, until he died.
Reading the almost always skippable PS section revealed that the author’s brother passed away from complications of obesity assuaged some of my concern regarding the handling of the subject; she even goes so far as to say that she worries about having reduced him to just her obese older brother in writing the book, even if Edison isn’t him exactly. I’m still not sure if this book was helpful or harmful by sympathizing an imperfect obese character (and really, how many are there? Particularly those in the middle of the continuum from fabulous rom-com heroine to Ignatius Reilly buffoons? I never considered how underrepresented human obese characters were in literature until this novel), but knowing that it was written as a bit of wish fulfillment softened the tone immensely.