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Hangry June 8, 2020

Lionel Shriver (Big Brother, 2013) reminds me of Miriam Toews (All My Puny Sorrows, 2014)

Lionel (born Margaret Ann) Shriver says of her book: “About a sister who risks her marriage by setting up house with a morbidly obese older brother to help him lose weight, the novel is a fantasy of sorts. It was a pale substitute: if I couldn’t save my brother in real life, I could save him on paper.”

Miriam Toews had a similar kind of fantasy with a similar twist at the end. Interviewer Alice O’Keeffe says,“Her older sister, Marjorie, killed herself in 2010, having lived with severe depression for most of her life. Like their father, who had taken his own life almost exactly 12 years before, she threw herself under a train.” The book “is the story of two sisters, Yolandi (Yoli), the chaotic middle-aged mother of two teenagers, and Elfrieda (Elf), a beautiful, talented, happily married concert pianist, who is nevertheless determined to kill herself. As Yoli says, ‘she wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other’. As it becomes clear that Elf will achieve her wish at any cost, Yoli is forced to consider whether the most loving response would be to help her do so.”

In Toews’s book, the ending has the sisters on a plane to Dignitas in Switzerland to have a medically assisted death. That didn’t happen, and neither did Shriver’s sister take the brother on a yearlong liquid diet.

Shriver recalls in real life, “Was I being called to put him up? But my brother was very difficult! Did I love him that much? Would my husband Jeff put up with him? Could I put up with him? Would Greg fit through our doorways? Would our little downstairs toilet crack under the strain? […] As it happened, Greg’s condition abruptly plummeted again and he died two days later. I never had to confront if I was kind enough, loving enough, self-sacrificing enough to take my brother in.”

O’Keefe relates, “In the immediate aftermath of Marjorie’s death, Toews believed she would never be able to write about it. ‘I had no words. It took a couple of years before I thought, no, I’m a writer, this is what I do, take stuff and work it into something that makes sense to me’.”


Shriver, L. (2013.) “My brother ate himself to death – and I will never get over the guilt.” From–I-guilt.html

O’Keefe, A. (2015.) “Interview: Miriam Toews: ‘I worried people would think, what is wrong with this family?’” From


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