If you haven't seen the film with Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, you should. It's bleak and horrible and you won't want to see it again, but it's worth a watch.
Anyway, the things I really loved about Kevin were the writing and the complexity. Something about Lionel Shriver's prose is deeply compelling, and I love to read even her books whose contrivances leave me cold (the story of The post-birthday world, for example, is complete nonsense, and I still enjoy reading it). But I was disappointed to learn that her most recent novel is called Big brother and centres around a woman whose brother Edison, once a "slim, hip pianist" turns up for a visit weighing roughly 386 pounds. To us Brits, that's 27.5 stone.
Let me get this out of the way right now: I couldn't care less about all the handwringing regarding obesity epidemics and national averages and plane seats and fatties-cost-the-NHS-millions-of-pounds-a-year. Everyone has the right to be whatever weight they want, or whatever weight they happen to be, and in the UK, you additionally have as much right to be treated for any conditions arising from that as you do to be treated for sexual health, lung cancer, liver damage, gender confirmation, and a million other things. I have no patience for fatness-as-a-moral-failure narratives, nor for conniving arguments that try to make that statement without seeming to make it (see I'm only concerned for your health, I just want you to live a full life, I don't want people to be mean to you, wouldn't you rather have more choice in clothes, etc).
So that's why I was disappointed in Shriver's subject matter. The best thing about Shriver's novels is how deeply she examines complicated situations; how much nuance she reads into people and their lives. It's impossible to say that it's all Eva or all Kevin, or even how much blame should be assigned to Franklin. The novel twists and turns on itself with such dedication that you're constantly wrongfooted as a reader, and that kind of satisfying moral ambiguity is not something I want to see applied to (as the blurb says) "why we overeat".
I'm going to spoil the entire plot of Big brother, including the twist at the end, so read on at your own risk.
The narrator, Pandora Halfdanarson, has grown up under the shadow of a famous father and a huge personality of a brother, but by the time we meet her, she is outranking both in personal and professional success. When Edison arrives for a visit having gained hundreds of pounds and lost friends, work, pride and possessions, she and her family struggle to ignore what they call "the elephant in the room". As he prepares to leave on a fictional jazz tour of Europe, she proposes that they get a house together for a year, where he will be put on a strict diet until he loses the weight. He succeeds, but when he realises that she will now go back to her family, he deliberately binges until he regains all the weight.
At this point it is revealed that the whole weight-loss story line has been Pandora's invention, and that Edison instead returned to New York, foundered further, gained more and more weight, and died at 49 of "complications of congestive heart failure".
This feels like such a cop out. I'm not saying I was happy with the 'I love my bro so much I'm gonna force him to crash diet for his own good, bravely risking my own health and marriage in the process' story, but this 'and then I woke up and it was all a dream' thing? How has that been allowed in a successful writer's fourteenth novel? It's not that it isn't subject to similar complexities as Shriver's usual narratives - I would be far angrier if her 'dream' had ended successfully rather than with a reversion to eating-as-emotional-weapon - but it does have the effect of declawing everything about the preceding 200 pages. In those pages Pandora gets to know Edison, and herself, and other characters develop alongside them. Employing the silly 'it was all a dream' contrivance cheapens the development that has occurred throughout the novel, leaving you with a crushing sense of anticlimax. "Oh yeah, this didn't happen and could never have happened, and he's dead now anyway." It's just poor form.
This book has all of Shriver's signatures: complicated, often unlikeable characters with unusual names and esoteric occupations; multi-faceted musings on place, identity and fame; an obsession with food and eating; a focus on familial ties and responsibility. The complexities are great, and her fascination with the strive for satisfaction, challenge and meaning in life is as compelling here as it is in Kevin. There's a really interesting discussion to be had about their portrayals of 'normal' life: ambition, achievement, stability, adventure - what 'normal' means and if it's worth it. But I feel so let down by the subject matter, and even more so by the cowardly ending.
Reading the notes at the back reveals that Shriver's older brother died in the same circumstances as Edison. So that pretty much explains why this novel feels more like a vehicle than fictional craft. It also gives us this gem from Shriver herself:
I faced a range of obvious end points, none satisfying: a) Edison stays fat (static, not a story); b) Edison loses the weight and lives happily ever after (didn't sound like a Shriver novel to me); c) Edison loses the weight only to gain it all back again. Now, the latter structure would engender an appealing pathos. Yet as a matter of principle I could not publish a novel with the implicit message that in the long run it's impossible to lose weight, and thus it's pointless to even try.I mean, this could take days to unpack, and I'm trying to practise brevity. (But I have to say this: a character getting really fat and then living their life is not "static". That is frankly insulting.) Shriver's anti-fat bias is summed up in the closing point: she thinks losing weight is so desirable that it would be morally wrong to publish a piece of fiction suggesting that losing weight is impossible. And that's disappointing from someone who wrestles with moral ambiguities the way that Shriver normally does. To be clear, I'm not advocating for a debate about the rights and wrongs of weight loss, fat-hatred, obesity scaremongering and the like. I think I've made my own views clear. But this moral high-handedness is not what I expected from Lionel Shriver, and it's not what I wanted.
So I chose d).