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American author Lionel Shriver in her home in southeast London in 2010.

David Azia/The Associated Press

Big Brother
Lionel Shriver

Pandora Halfdanarson, the heroine of Lionel Shriver's novel Big Brother, runs a successful business selling custom-made caricature dolls. When you pull the chain on the intricately crafted replica of a husband, say, or a friend, it mimics the most annoying and mockable sayings of the original. The dolls have an irresistible appeal, according to Pandora: "ridicule paired with affection." Ridicule? Definitely. Affection? Maybe not so much.

Whatever the balance of those two elements, it's not hard to imagine Shriver herself enjoying the scornful side of Pandora's work. She has built a career, which now includes 12 novels, on defiantly difficult-to-like heroines, contrarian social and political views, and general tetchiness. In fact, compared with Eva Khatchadourian in We Need To Talk About Kevin or Glynis Knacker in So Much For That, Pandora is meant to be – and often is – a pretty nice person. She genuinely loves her adopted daughter and her brother, is patient with her frequently obnoxious adopted son, and takes her marriage seriously.

The centre of Big Brother is Pandora's brother, Edison, and his morbid obesity. Shriver likes to write a novel around an issue, as she did with the U.S. health-care system in So Much For That, or with terrorism in The New Republic, and there are vestigial signs here that she intended to make obesity her theme. It's an interesting moment in the history of our attitude to fat, with mounting studies that suggest being overweight is not the clear threat to health we have assumed it to be, with the growing credibility of the fat-acceptance movement, and the disturbing link between stigmatizing fat and the rise of eating disorders. But however rich the subject, it remains undeveloped, because the heroine's feelings for her brilliant older brother take over the novel. What we have instead is a bleak family drama with a mystifying flaw at its heart.

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As Pandora tells the story, she and her family are living in bucolic Iowa when Edison, her formerly attractive jazz musician brother, comes for a visit. To her horror, Edison has gained more than 200 pounds and his life is a shambles. He's a larger-than-life figure in other ways too, speaking in a weird jazz argot, monopolizing the conversation, breaking a cherished chair, and fouling their pristine house. (Think Philip Seymour Hoffman in a fat suit.) But Pandora can't control her need to help him. Understanding that she is putting her newish marriage in jeopardy, she moves with Edison to an apartment in town where they undertake a year-long mostly liquid diet. (Pandora has about 40 pounds of her own to lose.)

Even though more than 90 per cent of diets fail, and the reformation of the pleasure-loving, New York-based Edison into a thoughtful, abstemious guy who appreciates Iowa strains credulity, the drama of weight loss is, well, dramatic. The plot may creak loudly at times – it's unlikely that Pandora would invite Edison along on one of her rare rendezvous with her husband, but Shriver wants another scene of family conflict – yet in general the pacing and the sense of delayed gratification keep the pages turning swiftly.

As usual, Shriver's tracking of the sheer mess of family relationships is black, and masterful. Take Solstice, Pandora's younger sister. She is the only child to whom their narcissistic father paid attention, but she remains jealous of her older siblings' closeness, sending Pandora "ensnaring care packages of weird and conspicuously useless presents." Solstice's chopstick cradles, knitted roosters and fragile fans litter Pandora's house, creating a "cumulative sensation of beholdenness and ingratitude." Even Pandora, nicer than many Shriver heroines, does not escape their trademark irritability. Pandora's is usually reserved for her husband, Fletcher. His early hours, his parsimonious ways with food, his obsessive bicycling all rouse her to an irritability that occasionally seems out of character.

(A word about the characters' names. They are either fanciful – Pandora, Solstice, Magnolia – or confusingly interchangeable units reminiscent of old-school law firms – Fletcher, Travis, Edison, Tanner, Cody. Where have all the Roberts and Joannes gone?)

The book is divided into three sections, Up, Down and Out. The first two sections, referring to Edison's weight, are long. The last, Out, is short and pulls the rug from under the reader. This completely unexpected about-face (which a reviewer must honour with silence) struck me first as misguided and even slightly hostile to the reader. Days later, I summoned a more sympathetic response, seeing it as Pandora's arguably credible reaction to the complications of her feelings for Edison. But it still grates, still feels wrong. When it arises naturally out of a character's psychology, as happens at the end of Ian McEwan's Atonement, a daring change in direction can make sense. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen in Big Brother.

The most valuable thing about the novel is the question it poses: What do we owe our family and, more specifically, our siblings? And there is no easy answer. As Pandora says, "What is wonderful about kinship is also what is horrible about it: there is no line in the sand, no natural limit to what these people can reasonably expect of you ... Ergo, what Edison could 'reasonably' expect of me was potentially infinite." It would be a rare reader who didn't consider his or her own responsibilities to family while reading the novel.

Perhaps in accordance with the theme of family love and duty, the softer, less impatient characters in this book are something new in the Shriver landscape. Pandora's daughter, Cody, is tender-hearted and drawn with affection. Pandora never disavows her concern for her brother; she wishes she had done more for him. When her doll business winds down, she is relieved, saying that the dolls had demonstrated "a mean streak that didn't suit me." That's something you don't expect to hear from a Shriver character.

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A curious thing happened on the way to writing this review. I had read the book and was puzzling over it when I learned, accidentally, that Shriver had written an article criticizing the fat-acceptance movement because her elder brother's morbid obesity was taking a critical toll on his health. He died of cardiac arrest in his 50s before the article was published.

At first, it seemed that knowing the origin of Big Brother gave me a significant key to understanding it. Years ago, an academic friend had told me categorically, "You never learn anything worth knowing about a literary work from the author's biography." That is the modernist credo, and I have always resisted it, because I enjoy writers' biographies.

But the more I thought about Big Brother, the more I recognized the sense in the anti-biographical stance. Knowing something about the author may point to a simple or complex psychological motivation for her work. It may also suggest something about the book's flaws: It would be easy to say, for example, that some of Big Brother's emotional incoherence derives from Shriver's complicated feelings of guilt, love and responsibility toward her brother. But as well as being presumptuous – because I don't know enough about Shriver's feelings – in the final analysis, such a judgment sheds little light on the book. No matter what happened to Shriver the woman, the book was written by Shriver the novelist and has to stand on its own.

Katherine Ashenburg wrote about obesity in Critical Mass, in the January issue of The Walrus.

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