If your plan was to start 2019 with a blast of body positivity, you might want to avoid this book.
Through a series of 13 potentially standalone stories, Mona Awad focuses on Lizzie, self-described fat girl, from her teens to her late twenties. Awad is brutally masterful in her depiction of one young woman’s battle with her body and how that shapes in mostly horrifying ways the relationships she has in her life—with friends, family, and romantic partners. There is something so bleakly realistic about these glimpses into Lizzie’s life—sometimes from afar and sometimes from way too close—that I couldn’t stop reading but when I finished, I felt like I needed something—a hot shower, a long hike, a good conversation—to shake the feeling of claustrophobia.
I think that means Awad’s writing worked—making me feel how trapped Lizzie is by her idea of what she should look like and by what she deserves as a fat girl (no matter how thin she becomes). Awad shines a light on dynamics of jealousy and competition between women that I think most of us would prefer to ignore—about how it feels to watch someone have a normal relationship with food or clothes when you don’t, about how a person gaining weight feels about the person losing weight (or vice versa), and about the pity women feel for those they “other.” As Lizzie drops weight, she both envies and pities the women around her that don’t have her self-control but she cannot see what those around her can see—that her relationship to food and herself is toxic.
The story that affected me the most powerfully involves 20-something Lizzie visiting her mom in California. Her mother squeezes Lizzie’s newly thin frame into dresses and high heels and practically pimps her out to her co-workers, showing off her daughter in a way that both makes Lizzie and the reader uncomfortable. Yet, at the same time, Lizzie notices signs of her mother’s failing health—brought on by her own issues with weight. It’s heartbreaking and awful at the same time.
A couple of things that struck me when I finished. One is that this was shelved in Young Adult but it’s definitely not YA material. It’s not the darkness that’s the problem; it’s the absence of any light. If I read this as a teenager, it would have traumatized the f*** out of me. Also, I was mystified by the language in many of the promotional blurbs. Phrases like “this book sparkles with wit” and “hilarious” and “full of sharp insight and sly humor” really floored me. This book is a lot of things but funny (on any level) is not one of them.
I’m not sure what this all means in terms of stars. This was a really well-done book but I don’t ever want to read it again.