I am so so happy to get some reading done over the weekend.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have long been a fan of Shirley Jackson. I regularly re-read her short story “The Lottery” and her celebrated novel The Haunting of Hill House. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which deals with persecution, Other-ing, alienation, and mental illness, contains whispers of these two pieces. The language is heightened in such a way that made me think the Blackwood residence hides something supernatural. The novel begins: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
There are no werewolves here; just humans, and the horrible things they can do.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Pandora Halfdanarson loves food. Before she had her own business, she catered, whipping up vast amounts of pasta and cake. Her husband, Fletcher, is a health nut, eating bland food and cycling miles and miles every day. Their children would rather have Pandora’s cupcakes than Fletcher’s bran cereal. They usually skip having dinner at home with their parents.
No one has a healthy relationship with food, Pandora believes. She believes it more when she goes to the airport to pick up her big brother, Edison, who now weighs close to 400 pounds.
I knew when I first started reading that Big Brother should have come with a trigger warning. My boyfriend is nowhere near 400 pounds, but he is a big guy; my weight is close to what Pandora weighs, in that moment in the story when she looks at the scale and staggers back, horrified. Yes. Okay. My boyfriend and I deal regularly with fat discrimination (the odd look as we walk down the street, the overly familiar comments, the name-calling), and now fat discrimination screams at me from this novel. Edison says at one point, “It’s not a description, it’s a verdict. Like I’m an abomination, the source of all evil and corruption in the universe. I eat too much, but I ain’t murdered anybody. I ain’t no paedophile.” Hear, hear, Edison.
And yet I kept reading. I want to know what happens. Where is Shriver going with this? I wondered what ending would be satisfying for me. If Edison ends up losing weight and being loved, then that means the love of family is conditional – we’ll only love you if you’re exactly this size. (I feel this, always, and this is a touchy subject for me.) If Edison ends up dead due to his weight gain, then it’s a condemnation of all fat people in the world – if you don’t lose weight, you will die, and it will all be your fault because you eat too damn much.
However, Edison is not only fat – he is also a slob. He eats constantly and doesn’t clean up after himself. He is depressed and lethargic, and an annoying name-dropping full-of-himself person. He is also poor, so he gets money from his sister. That will get anyone thrown out of a house.
He has to be all this, instead of merely fat. What if Edison is fat and happy? What if he exercises every day, holds down a job, is neat, jolly, smart, and happy? Would Pandora still be moved to make him lose weight? Would Fletcher still be moved to say the meanest, blackest things to him?
Edison has to be more than fat, so his fatness can be rolled into the other sad parts of his life, so Pandora and Fletcher can come across not as judgmental pieces of shit, but as victims of a gold-digging, jive-talking fat guy.
I can see the solution from a mile away. Pandora should have explored the root of the problem: her brother’s diminished sense of self-worth, his loss of dignity and the will to live. Not the weight gain alone.
I loved this book. It talks about family and the truth about sibling dynamics, and how society views the individual based merely on what the surface shows. Lionel Shriver’s big brother died an obese man, so I know where she is coming from. She is coming from a place of guilt and mourning. But her prejudice about the overweight shines through. The book goes back and forth, from fat-hating to fat-loving, but the weight discrimination is still there. Just read this article of hers. (Add to this the fact that by her own admission, she eats only once a day, and equates food with guilt.)
Obesity and weight gain is a very complex issue. At least the book can be a jumping-off point for further discussion.