I’ve been afraid to read Lionel Shriver ever since We Need to Talk about Kevin.
That was a read that was at once terrifying, disturbing and just brilliant. And despite having read it six years ago, the story is still unforgettable.
So how does one live up to that?
Well perhaps with a larger-than-life character inspired by Shriver’s own sibling’s obesity.
Pandora grew up in Los Angeles where her rather obnoxious father once starred in a TV series. She now lives with her furniture maker husband Fletcher and two stepchildren in Iowa. She previously ran a catering company but stumbled into doing a nice business in custom-made pull-string dolls – Baby Monotonous. Her cycling fanatic husband is a brown rice and broccoli, quinoa-loving “nutritional Nazi”. With two teenagers in the house, Pandora cooks more typical fare and often leaves a small slice of dessert for Fletcher, a “ritual compromise”:
“From each contraband confection, I cut a one-bite amuse-bouche, arranging it with a dab of whipped cream, a garnish of mint, and a couple of pristine fresh raspberries on a large china dessert plate with a sparkling silver fork. This I would leave in the middle of our prep island, the way kids put out cookies for Santa, then make myself scarce. Fletcher would never take the bait while I was watching; still, it meant more to me than I can say that these illicit samplers of what he now deemed ‘toxic’ vanished within the hour.”
Her brother Edison, a professional jazz pianist, comes to stay. Once “tall, fit, and flamboyant” with the looks of Jeff Bridges, Pandora doesn’t recognize him at the airport, or rather she was trying not to recognise him. For he now weighs over 300 pounds, the features of his face “stretched as if painted on a balloon”, his “tight, bulging fingers that recalled bratwurst in the skillet just before the skin splits”.
After some uncomfortable weeks together, Edison cooking up a storm, encouraging Fletcher’s son to drop out of high school, and breaking Fletcher’s beloved handmade chair, things blow up just as Edison is to return to New York. Pandora discovers the truth: he’s broke, homeless and pretty much gig-less.
“I now recognize that responsibility, once assumed, cannot be readily repudiated- not without doing so much damage in the process of its abdication that you might better have never assumed the responsibility in the first place. Whether or not I realized it when I first sent that plane ticket and five-hundred dollar check, I had taken Edison on. All however many hundred pounds of him. This contract had no end date of November 29 if you studied the fine print. There are instances when pet owners are overwhelmed and leave dogs they didn’t realize would be so much trouble at the ASPCA; foster parents have second thoughts, and return unruly charges to the state. But flesh-and-blood family works in only one direction.”
Pandora, having put on twenty pounds in the past three years herself, decides to make a commitment to him and help him lose the weight (and lose hers too). She moves the two of them into an apartment nearby and kicks off a powdered drink diet.
Shriver takes this opportunity to rant at the diet industry, one of several fascinating mini rants about various topics throughout the book:
“What struck me about the enormous industry I’d brushed up against was that all these plans, programs, supplements, and pharmaceuticals were hawking the one product that American consumers both badly wanted and couldn’t buy: that little packet of determination to stick to the program like a sachet of low-fat salad dressing. Even costly procedures like liposuction couldn’t protect you from eating yourself silly once the arthroscopic puncture was healed, couldn’t keep you from slurping every pound of the yellow glop surgeons pumped into a bedside pale in reverse. No highly paid nutritional consultant could not eat a cupcake for you. Despite the dizzying array of products packaged deceitfully as such, in truth a slim figure was not on the shelf. I had just tripped over a gravel pit of 43 million pet rocks.”
This new lifestyle starts out hard for both of them (Edison isn’t exactly the easiest of roommates), but they get used to it, and even find themselves enjoying it a little, but before the year is up, Pandora finds that her moving in with her brother to work off his weight takes a toll on her own family and marriage.
“You walk out on a man and his family for six months – a year, is what you prepared me for once you’d done your sums. Well, that has consequences. I told you: feelings change. Not because of what someone decides to feel. Because of cause and effect. Like a hammer on a board.”
The ending though is a bit of a surprise and I’m still puzzling over it (although Pandora provides a very detailed explanation). And I guess that’s one of the things about Shriver’s work, she leaves the reader with plenty of, erm, food for thought.
Her characters are not easy to like, her story leaves you a little uneasy. And perhaps for this, like the unpleasantness of a bitter brew (a ginseng tonic my mother-in-law likes to make us, good for the health and for flagging energy comes to mind), Shriver’s books are a good read. It makes you uncomfortable, it makes you think about things, it makes you wake up to the realities of life after floating around on imagined worlds and perfect endings in those lighter-hearted fare I’m often drawn to (especially for late night reads).
I can’t help but be intrigued. I want to know more about what Shriver is like (somewhat eccentric by the sound of it – apparently she eats only one meal a day and refuses to turn on the heat in her London house, among other things). I want to grab hold of her other books and see what else I’ve been missing.
Lionel Shriver is a novelist whose previous books include Orange Prize–winner We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World, A Perfectly Good Family, Game Control, Double Fault, The Female of the Species, Checker and the Derailleurs, and Ordinary Decent Criminals. She is widely published as a journalist, writing features, columns, op-eds, and book reviews for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist, Marie Claire, and many other publications. She is frequently interviewed on television, radio, and in print media. She lives in London and Brooklyn, NY.
I received this book for review from TLC Book Tours and its publisher
Check out the rest of the tour stops
Tuesday, June 4th: The Blog of Lit Wits
Thursday, June 6th: she treads softly
Monday, June 10th: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, June 11th: The Well-Read Redhead
Wednesday, June 12th: Man of La Book
Thursday, June 13th: Book Hooked Blog
Monday, June 17th: BookNAround
Wednesday, June 19th: nomadreader
Thursday, June 20th: Books in the City
Monday, June 24th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Tuesday, June 25th: A Dream Within A Dream
Thursday, June 27th: 5 Minutes For Books
Friday, June 28th: The Book Chick
Tuesday, July 2nd: Olduvai Reads
Wednesday, July 3rd: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books