I really do like Melissa Broder’s writing, and this is the fourth book of hers I’ve read, and after loving The Pisces, I found this one disappointing. It’s hard to separate all my thoughts while reading the book from additional thoughts and ideas from my conversations with my wife, who also has read both novels, and from a few reviews and interviews with the book.
I called this book “one of the most spooked books I’ve read” and I meant by this that it feels like the success of The Pisces seemed to have led to some of the issues in this book. If that’s not actually true, well, it feels true based on some of the weaknesses I feel are here. For one, this book seems unwilling to take some of the ideas it’s playing with to the extremes the book wants to take credit for. The book hinges in part on the disordered eating of the protagonist, who counts calories, who charts out whole weeks of eating, and has numerous schemes to maintain a strict control over those numbers. This is in part connected to her relationship to her mother (who in a flashback tells her something like “You’re not anorexic. Anorexics are skinnier”) and to some kind of fear of womanhood. And this leads her to therapy and to trying out an art therapy in which while manipulating clay forms a kind of pre-historical fertility woman figure (you can imagine the figures) that ends up being a kind of golem (well, metaphorically) when she meets and Orthodox Jewish lesbian whose physical features align with her clay figure. So, all that is great, in theory. But for all the depravedness we’re supposed to feel about the disordered eating (I think), there’s a sense that she’s only willing to push it so far (it’s obviously a very sensitive and upsetting subject) in the narrative, but the way it’s talked about seems to rely not on the disordered eating we’re seeing in the book, but maybe by the extremes we might think about it. IE like we have to fill in the gaps the narrator won’t take us to. If this were The Pisces, I think we’d be taken there. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of different books, because the tone and suggestion in the book is “total depravity” while the actual details keep pumping the brakes. And that’s the issue here. There’s a kind of hesitancy here, that I wish there wasn’t.