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, burdened 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.