Time for another book review of the grown-up variety. It’s been a while since my last one – long library wait lists mean I’ve so far missed out on the last two books for the Pink Fibro Bookclub facebook group – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading!
Earlier this year, a friend gave me a copy of Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother for my birthday, knowing that I’d been utterly captivated by her book We Need to Talk About Kevin.
So I read Big Brother. And it made me want to read We Need to Talk About Kevin again.
And here are my thoughts.
Big Brother / Lionel Shriver
When Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at her local Iowa airport, she literally doesn’t recognize him. In the four years since the siblings last saw one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened?
This book was, until a certain point, quite a conundrum for me. I found it enthralling. I couldn’t put it down. But I didn’t like any of the characters, and in some places I didn’t even like the writing. Somehow, there was just enough in the characters for me to recognise bits of people I know, and so I got suckered in, even while holding it at arm’s length.
Does that even make sense?! See, it’s a conundrum!
Once Pandora gets over the initial shock of seeing ‘the new Edison’, she commits to joining him on a journey of weight loss, putting her marriage, family and life as she knows it on the line. The book follows this journey, but also generally discusses food, our relationship with it, and the statistics of size in the United States.
While I was reading this book, I thought about food. A lot. And not just during the moments I was actually reading; until I’d finished it and could put it aside for good, I thought about my relationship to the very things in my hands and mouth whenever I prepared or ate something.
If Shriver’s aim was to make the reader think about the role that food plays in our lives, mission accomplished. I still catch myself overthinking things as I reach for a piece of chocolate. Do I need this chocolate? Do I even want it? Or have I conditioned myself to believe that I enjoy it, so that I just keep eating it?
But, while the story was compelling, I didn’t feel for the characters. Yes, I wanted Pandora and Edison to succeed, but I didn’t feel invested in them succeeding.
There is a twist at the end of Big Brother, if you can call it a twist. It’s a doozy. And it has divided readers. There are plenty of reviews out there with spoilers; if you want to know what happened, you can find out, but I’ll not write it here.
I will just say that I am very firmly in Camp The-Ending-Ruined-The-Book-For-Me. In one chapter – one sentence, really – I felt cheated. I almost stopped reading altogether, but kept on until the end. Then threw the book down in disgust.
We Need to Talk About Kevin / Lionel Shriver
Two years ago, Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a popular English teacher. Now, in a series of letters to her absent husband, Eva recounts the story of how Kevin came to be Kevin.
I was completely enthralled by this book the first time I read it. And after reading Big Brother, I felt compelled to read it again. Surely it couldn’t be as good as I remembered?
If anything, I got even more out of this book on the second reading. WNTTAK is engrossing. Raw. Emotional (even while simultaneously being, in some moments, emotionally detached).
And disturbing. You think you’re ready for that, given the blurb. You know that there will be at least one disturbing moment, and probably more. But when they arrive they’re even more uncomfortable than you expect them to be.
It’s also beautifully written, with certain lines standing out to me:
- Your remnants mocked me: the jump rope limp on its hook; the dirty socks, stiff, caricatured deflations of your size eleven feet.
- In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.
- The discovery that heartbreak is indeed heartbreaking consoles us about our humanity.
Eva is not sure how Kevin became Kevin. She feels some responsibility, but isn’t sure if she is responsible. How much of Kevin is Kevin? How much of it is everything else?
The book doesn’t answer this question. Nor does it need to. I have spoken to others who have read the book, and while most agree that the question isn’t answered, others point emphatically to Kevin-as-inherently-bad or Kevin-as-his-mother’s-son-and-creation as the causes of Kevin-as-mass-murderer. So it’s possible we bring our own preconceptions and experiences to this book.
The first time I read it, I felt every step of Eva’s journey. Every moment, every thought, every feeling of guilt, every apparent breakthrough and every snap back to reality. The second time, I was able to view it a little differently. I still empathised with Eva, but was able to recognise that the book, as a series of letters written by her, and written in hindsight following the events of ‘Thursday’, held to her version of events and her perspective. I was able to see that, to other people, the individual events may not have played out exactly as recounted. Her portraits of those people may not have been entirely accurate, but were of course no less real to her.
WNTTAK is a fantastic read, but not one to be undertaken lightly. I am personally very glad that I didn’t read this book before I had my first child. I was never an overly maternal person, and didn’t feel the clucky-cluck feelings (oh, how times have changed!). I just don’t know how I would have reacted to this book before having a child of my own, and knowing that Eva’s experience of early motherhood and her bond with her newborn child (or lack thereof) were nothing like my own.
Have you read Big Brother or We Need to Talk About Kevin? What did you think?