ADVANCE WARNING – HERE BE SPOILERS
I was sort of reluctant to read this book. Not because I don’t like Lionel Shriver, I do, but because, well, let’s not gild the lily, I’m a bit fat. The last thing I wanted to do was plough through a 400 page smug lecture on overeating, disguised as a narrative about someone having to deal with her suddenly fat brother.
The main characters are asking to be hated, just by their names. Edison is the titular brother, his sister, the narrator, is named Pandora. They have a younger sister called Solstice. Pandora is married to Fletcher. Fletcher! That’s a surname, for starters. So it’s not boding well. Worse, Travis is a failed jazz musician and speaks in the most tiresome “hey you’re a cool cat” way that doesn’t elicit any sympathy from the reader. And Fletcher is so very uptight about food and exercise that he too causes more eye rolling than anything else. However, Shriver is not only a crafty wordsmith, she really knows how to create three dimensional characters. Pandora and Edison’s upbringing with their TV star father is beautifully woven throughout the book, as is Pandora’s struggles with her own marriage and step-children.
She also shows Fiona McFarlane exactly how you should go about applying personification to sofas with this delightful aside about Fletcher’s furniture (he’s a carpenter): “so lithe were his creations that whenever I walked into the living room the furniture seemed to have been grazing on throw rugs moments before. Its back corners curled like stag horns, bowed legs prancing on pared feet, the couch weighted down with pillows, without which the skittish creature might have cantered out the door”. This, and many other fleeting descriptions made me chuckle, rather than wanting to hurl the book at the nearest shredder, like The Night Guest did.
Where it does derail here though is with the main story. It stretches credibility that Pandora would walk out of her life with Fletcher to spend a year living with Edison and getting him to slough off all the weight he has gained. It continues to stretch it that Edison manages, in just one year, to do just that. So when, and in doing so owing a massive debt to Atonement, Pandora reveals that her saving Edison from himself was a fiction she created to assuage her guilt at feeling so helpless when faced with his unassailable bulk, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or furious. Ultimately, since I was made furious by Atonement, this ended up annoying me too. I just felt a bit cheated. When Edison’s real story is relayed to us, briefly, it sounds every bit as readable as the fakery we’ve just had foisted on us. So why not just tell us that and break our hearts when he fails to conquer his demons and dies of heart failure, no doubt brought on by his weight? I’m sure some people will love that double bluff, as I am pretty much the only person I know who didn’t find the end of Atonement to be the most wonderful thing he’s ever laid eyes on. But there we are.