Jami Attenberg's new novel, "The Middlesteins," has received high praise from Kirkus, with both a review and a blog post. And yet I find myself conflicted and reluctant to pick it up, based on the description alone.
Edie Middlestein is the central character around whom everyone else in this "masterpiece of Jewish family life" revolves. She's fat -- very fat. In fact, she's only a little bit fatter, relatively speaking, than I am. And her fatness -- and her obsession with food -- has torn her marriage and family apart. As the book description says:
For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth.
My knee-jerk response is a hearty fuck-you at the "enormous girth" descriptor.
But books with fat protagonists aren't actually all that common, so I have tried to muscle that reaction down, take the book without the lens of whoever wrote the back copy. (I've been at the mercy of that kind of copy before, after all, when I was referred to as "300 pounds of soft Orlando jiggle" in a local publication.)
But the rest of the summary also sets off alarms -- and so, frankly, do the reviews (and that Kirkus blog post). There's a lot of focus on how tragicomic the book is, and I have a growing fear that the humor is at Edie's expense. There are also Attenberg's own words that she chose fatness because of its social topicalness. She wanted a "vice" that "couldn't be hidden."
I'm rarely interested in morality tales in fictional form. I'm especially not interested when a book uses a character's body to stand in, for example, for "our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food." (That comes from the book description as well.) More so, I'm tired of any narrative that positions a body like mine as the source of everyone's problems.
It's completely possible that this is a great book. But my expectations are pretty grim.
As happens when someone writes a book on a particular subject, Attenberg was apparently asked to compile a list of her favorite 6 books with "overweight" protagonists. I read the list with interest -- I figured it would tell me something about how Attenberg viewed fatness. And, in fact, she mentions that she used to be fat (When discussing Jennifer Weiner's "Good in Bed" which is a decent book with an ending that left me disappointed).
What the list tells me is that Attenberg and I have very different ideas of what makes a good fat main character. As a fat person in the world, I like my fat characters to be, first and foremost, people instead of tragic figures. And I also like my fiction to have some hope -- I'll leave the dystopias to s.e., y'all. While that doesn't mean I require things to be sunshine and daisies, I do prefer fiction that is not depressing as hell.
"Blubber," the sole YA representative on her list (published in 1974, before I was even BORN), doesn't even really have a fat protagonist so much as it has a fat character who is bullied throughout -- fatness was a handy device in this case. I'm not saying Blubber isn't great, because it is. But if I wanted to recommend a book actually about a fat character, it wouldn't be the one.
And so I sat down to make a list of books about fat characters that I could honestly recommend. I wasn't surprised when it was HARD. Fat characters tend to be dastardly (Dudley Dursley) or jolly (fill in all the blanks!) -- they are rarely simply fat because they are fat. But after a lot of pulling books off my shelves (and consulting with a friend who devours YA professionally), I've compiled my OWN list of the 6 best books with fat characters. They're all YA -- and I don't think that's a coincidence.
1. "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green and David Levithan
Like, "Blubber," this is a book with a fat character as opposed to a fat protagonist. But Tiny Cooper is, in the words of the first Will Grayson we meet, "the world's largest person who is also really, really gay." Tiny Cooper is no tragic figure. He's not any more lost of alone than your average teenage boy. In fact, he's considerably less so. (Tangent: Paper Towns, by John Green, has nothing to do with fatness but is awesome, and not just because it's set in Orlando.)
2. "Guardian of the Dead" by Karen Healey
Full disclosure, Karen and I became friends after I reviewed her book on The Rotund. It wasn't an entirely positive review, because there are a couple of descriptions that struck me as achingly painful. But what I said then and what I still believe now is that sometimes we're just too bruised for even a gentle touch to be okay. Ellie Spencer is believable and relatable and I like her -- I want good things for her through this entire fascinating story.
3. "The Dark Days of Hamburger Halprin" by Josh Berk
I was surprised by just how much I liked this one given the ever-present "overeating" reason for 16-year-old Will's fatness. But Will's wry observations when he is mainstreamed for the first time as a fat, deaf teenager make the momentary wince well worth it. There's a thread of deaf politics here, but it's not preachy so much as it is just Will's life. So, you know, I'm all for it.
4. "Vintage Veronica" by Erica S. Perl
A lot of fat people care passionately and, in some cases, even obsessively about clothes. I'd argue this is because it is such hard work to control what is a very standard aspect of individual presentation. That's why I like this book. Veronica works in an employee's only section of a vintage clothing store and puts together some fierce outfits. She also deals with people who ought not be trusted and a budding romance. So, you know, in some ways it's a typical teenage experience. Just with fatness.
5. "This Book Isn't Fat, It's Fabulous" by Nina Beck
The title is, admittedly, so groan worthy. This is what I wanted the book version of Huge to be. (The show was great but the book -- let's just say I mocked it thoroughly with Lesley and leave it at that.) Riley heads off to fat camp secure in her own awesomeness. Which is reflected in her romantic interests and the way she dresses and the way she presents herself in general. It's not often that a fat character is presented as desirable to others, especially without some sort of weight loss imperative. Riley is awesome just the way she is.
6. "The Fat Lady Sings" by Charles C. Lovett
This isn't the best written of the bunch. But what fat kid hasn't been overlooked and been convinced, rightly or wrongly, it was because they were fat? Aggie is a talented kid who falls prey to her own diva issues. But Aggie doesn't have to lose weight to grow as a person, which is so refreshing I can't even tell you. You'll have to read it for yourself.
Now, here's the metaphorical-million-dollar question: What do YOU think we should be reading as the first book in our xoBook Club? [I vote for self-help books and we all have to try to follow the advice. ] Are you eager to get your hands on the new J.K. Rowling? Is there some new paranormal romance that we all need to know about? Flood us with your suggestions so we can get this rolling, please!
Tweet book talk and xoBook Club suggestions to Marianne @therotund.