Fat Sibling

That's the alternative title to Lionel Shriver's book, Big Brother--a book I mentioned reading in a previous post. I stuck it out to the end. The big finish, as it were.

To recap, the book is about a woman who decides to try to help her very overweight brother lose the pounds. First, she let's him stay in her house for a couple of months after he's tossed out by his friend. At the end of the two months, he has told her that he has a gig in New York (he's a jazz musician) and so the visit seems finite. Close to the time he's supposed to leave, she discovers that he lied about the opportunity in Manhattan and actually has nowhere to go and will likely end up sleeping on a friend's house, jobless, homeless, and hopeless. From there, the next 100 plus pages are about the sister deciding to move in with him and go on a crash, all liquid diet. He's resistant at first, but then agrees, and together, after a year of struggle and one relapse, the pounds come off and he's down from almost three hundred pounds to the goal weight she's set, 163. They have a party to celebrate the victory, and she decides her project is over and that she'll reunite with her estranged husband. Her brother becomes furious, and, in the epilogue, we're told that he gains back all of the weight and maybe even more in the a startling quick time. I mean, the whole book is about "will he" or "won't he" with the weight loss, and it can only end one of two ways. Or so you think! But Lionel Shriver (related to the sharp-faced reporter? It's not a stretch) tell us in the epilogue that guess what? She (or rather, the narrator) made up the whole middle section of the story. She goes instead back to the moment when her brother is leaving and explains that she didn't really offer to help him further. She didn't check him into an expensive weight loss clinic or allow him to stay longer. She said good-bye, and he left, and he died a few years later, having continued to grow and grow until he needed an oxygen tank to get around.

I'm of two minds about this ending, because it smacks a bit of the "it was all a dream" trope that is one of the worst tricks you can play on your reader. That's what young writers tend to do--the write themselves into a corner and when things get out of hand and they can't figure out how to bring the narrative thread back to planet Earth, they opt for the dream escape hatch. Or the crazy-narrator-all-along option. Or the suicide. But mostly, it's "And then the alarm clock went off and she woke up" (often though, there's the impulse to add the extra predictable twist of the waking person finding that he's holding in his hands the last wisps of the horse's mane or some such nonsense).

So, is this what Shriver did? Did she waste my time and then say, Whoops, sorry, that's not what happened after all!  It felt that way, a little bit. Maybe she's making fun of the sibling story or fiction in general, where everything wraps up neatly, but if that were the case, why have the added fake ending of him falling off the wagon anyway in her fantasy version? Why not just let him keep the weight off and maybe find a girlfriend and rescue a three-legged dog? The narrator does ask this question too, because it's an obvious one. I don't know she did it. But I wasn't surprised, because she's the same writer who penned We Need to Talk about Kevin. Have you read that book? Or like me, have you just seen the movie with the ever androgynous and lovely Tilda Swinson? Well, that movie deals with this same ambiguity and morality--is it a familial responsibility to save someone? In this case, the main character has a sense that something is very wrong with her son. I mean, she gets this from even his infancy on. But she doesn't really say much to anyone, because she's wondering if something might be wrong with her--if she has a missing part in her psyche that won't let her love this little shit of a son. And then it's also a presentation of the nature vs. nurture debate. Is Kevin a psychopath because he wasn't loved enough, or even if she loved him more, would he still have killed his sister and her husband at the end? That's how it ends, you know. With her returning home to find that the rest of her family is dead and her son is in jail forever.

Can't say I recommend it, though I did race through it. Next up: Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt of The Secret History and The Little Friend fame.

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