How far would you go to rescue a sibling hurtling down the path to self-destruction? That’s the question Lionel Shriver poses in this bighearted novel about a sister’s battle to curb her brother’s epic ­overeating—a story that challenges some of our facile assumptions about weight, body image and the sometimes complicated daily encounter with one of life’s most mundane and sublime activities.

When down-on-his-luck jazz pianist Edison Appaloosa rolls into baggage claim at the Cedar Rapids Airport in an extra-wide wheelchair, his younger sister Pandora Halfdanarson is left nearly speechless. In the four years since she’s last seen him he’s added more than 200 pounds, a weight gain so massive he’s lost three inches of height. Pandora and Edison share the burden of a difficult past, as children of a father who once starred in a now long-forgotten television drama that blurred the boundary between real life and fantasy for both of them.

Edison settles in for an extended visit. From the first, his presence provokes conflict with Pandora’s husband, an obsessive cyclist and “nutritional Nazi” who gazes in horror on Edison’s feats of consumption. On the eve of her brother’s departure from Iowa, Pandora, the creator of a wildly successful line of snarky customized pull-string dolls called Baby Monotonous, decides to abandon her family and move into an apartment with Edison to manage his radical, nearly life-threatening weight loss program.

The second half of the novel traces the rocky course of that experiment. As Edison’s weight falls, his self-esteem rises, but Pandora, who has her own tangled relationship with food, must also struggle with the toll her choice of brother over husband and teenage stepchildren exacts on her family. Making effective use of the intimate, almost claustrophobic, settings of her novel, Shriver consistently delivers whip-smart, often witty dialogue and pungent character insights that add powerful momentum to what, at its heart, remains a simple story.

Only a writer of Shriver’s talent and courage would attempt a denouement as daring as the one that plays out over the novel’s final 15 pages. She succeeds by creating something that does much more than tie up plot threads and usher her characters off the stage. Instead, she makes us appreciate anew how profound the emotional and psychological issues of family and food are, deepening our empathy along with our admiration for the unquestionable skill she displays in doing it.

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