Writer to Watch: Mona Awad

Mona Awad’s debut book is 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl* (a play on the title of a Wallace Stevens poem); it’s a brief novel in linked short stories, rather as if all the connective tissue of a longer work has been winnowed away, leaving only a character study.

And Lizzie—variously, throughout the book, Elizabeth, Beth, and Liz—is quite a character. As the title suggests, she’s initially a fat girl, IMG_6213burdened by her own view of her appearance and the views of her friends, family, lovers, and the culture at large. But then she starts to lose weight, and keeps losing it until she is very thin, only to find that she is still miserable, still supremely conscious of the way her body is perceived in the world, still unable to rest for thinking about it.

There’s quite a bit to like in this book, besides its unflinching characterization and rejection of the fat-girl-gets-thin-and-then-becomes-happy-and-partnered-off trope: Lizzie’s voice is especially well developed in the early stories. Anyone who’s been self-conscious about weight will find some of her mundane struggles grimly familiar (trying to find a decent sweater without hideous cat appliqués, for example, or searching for the best camera angle for an online dating profile). Ms. Awad writes humiliation very well.

However, while 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl does savage the censorious, fat-shaming, beauty-obsessed culture we live in, the novel’s treatment of Lizzie, her mother, and Lizzie’s friend Mel suggests that women (and of course it is always women) who are fat at any stage in their lives are doomed to unhappiness for the rest of them; the lone counter-example in the book is a manicurist whom Lizzie is simultaneously repulsed by and fascinated with (and not incidentally, this character isn’t portrayed as particularly perceptive or intelligent). Essentially, I ended up feeling that the book participates in the very culture of fat-shaming that it’s attempting to push back against.

Lizzie’s defining personality trait is rage: even her quips (“I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time”) are just veneers for the anger that’s always seething inside of her. She’s right to be angry, of course; the deck is stacked against her, in more ways than one. Personally, I wanted to shake the book and yell “It’s possible to be both fat and happy!” or give Lizzie a copy of Dietland. In Ms. Awad’s novel, “fat” is code for “miserable,” and I don’t think the book offers any real hope or promise or indication otherwise, no sense at all that “fat” could be—should be—just a descriptor, like “tall.”

I think Ms. Awad has a real talent for voice and characterization, so I look forward to her next book, which I hope will be on a different subject.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

13 thoughts on “Writer to Watch: Mona Awad

  1. Yes, this is what I always worry about when I read a book about an overweight character. Either they get thin and then magically get happy, or everything is about their body. And if they get thin and get happy, that makes it about their body, too.

    • I think fat (and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense) people should appear way more often in books, and I do think the stigma they (we) face is worth writing about as a subject, as in this book, but yes, I’d like it if they were just treated as non-fat characters from time to time–with one mention of their looks and then the rest of the novel devoted to whatever else is going on.

      • Exactly. I’ve fought weight issues since I was an adolescent, on and off, and although many times unpleasant things happen to me because of my weight, that’s not the only thing in my life.

  2. Great review, Carolyn! I haven’t read the book, but I have a feeling I would agree with you.
    I would be interested to hear your thoughts about ‘Birdie’ by Tracey Lindberg. Bernice/Birdie is described as ‘big and beautiful’, but there is so much more going on in her life that you can easily forget that she is fat until it’s mentioned again. When she is in her dream-like state, she starts losing weight because she’s not eating anything. I was a bit confused as to whether or not this symbolized anything, or was just another way in which she was going to start her life over again. The author said in an interview that it didn’t have anything to do with thinner=better, but I didn’t think it was entirely clear.

    • It’s so funny you mention that because I just checked my library this morning to see if they have Birdie–alas, no (nor anything by the author). I’m going to see if they will order it because I am dying to read it, after your review. What you say about it here does sound problematic to me.

  3. Pingback: Shadow Giller: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad – Consumed by Ink

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