It took me a few false starts to write a review of Fat Girl: A True Story. I guess that in and of itself is a statement: this book is so thought-provoking it took me weeks to digest its contents, while at the same time being so scattered and narratively unfocused as to require me to do the work of digestion that is normally the job of the writer herself.

The good:

– This book is a compelling read. I could not put it down. The author starts her book with “I am fat. I am not so fat that I can’t fasten the seat belt on the plane. But, fat I am. I wanted to write about what it was and is like for me, being fat.” Clearly not the best writing, but it’s upfront and honest. She also warns early on that she will hold no punches and this won’t be like a normal memoir. That also intrigues the reader.

– The bulk of the book describes the childhood of her parents, how they met, why they divorced, and the author’s own troubled childhood. She offers enough detail for the reader to understand, generally, how these experiences led her to become the adult she is today. This section is the best part of the book.

The bad:

– The book has been touted as an example of what it’s like to be a “fat girl” today. I disagree. The book is a valuable historical source that documents what it was like to be considered a “fat girl” while growing up in the 1950s, when the current “obesity epidemic” had not yet hit; when it was rare to be overweight.* The author is not clear about exactly how big she is, though she says that her weight often yo-yoed and there were times when she was “almost thin.” Her daughter has said that her mother was never as big as she describes herself in the book, making me wonder, again, if perhaps that is a cultural and generational thing (i.e. she grew up with the 1950s notions of fat/thin and realized that her body size might be perfectly normal today).

– The book is framed as the story of a “fat girl,” but I again disagree. Perhaps that is accurate historically and by the author’s own self-definition (and probably sold more books than “Abused Girl” would have), but the book is really about a severely abused and neglected child who tried to find ways to cope with her childhood (and never really did). The book illustrates what it’s like to be depressed and to live with the legacy of childhood abuse; whether or not the survivor is fat is really beside the point. Plenty of “fat” people are happy; plenty of “thin” people are not.

The ugly:

Fat Girl, as a complete and satisfying book, doesn’t work. There is no focus. The author starts off with details about her current “fat” life, the guys who tell her she’s “too fat to fuck,” the photo of herself on the Church bulletin that she sees and is filled with disgust. Then she starts the chronological story of her life and her parents’ life, which is really the gem of the book. But this detailed narrative stops once she reaches high school. She then skips to marriages and children, making disparaging remarks without any detail or explanation. She then has about two pages of “conclusion” whereby she feels sorry for herself, and then the book ends. She never returns back to the story of her current life from the beginning of the book, and the compelling narrative of her childhood abruptly ends with no reason given.

– The author makes no attempt to reflect on her experiences or share how she interprets them with the reader. (To be fair, she is clear from the beginning that she will neutrally describe her life so that the reader can come to their own conclusions about why she is fat.) The author describes many traumatic incidents, including sexual assault, and offers no reflection whatsoever. Something I’m beginning to learn as I read more memoirs is that reflection and offering your own perspective and interpretation is an essential part of the genre. Writing a neutral account of incidents in your life is, well, a police report. It’s a historical document. It’s not a novel.

Regardless of all of the above, I’m very glad I read the book. Since my aim at the moment is to study the genre, this gives me great examples of what not to do. I definitely appreciate the crafting of the other memoirs I’m reading now more than I otherwise would have. Fat Girl also teaches me that a book (unfortunately) doesn’t need good writing or a good narrative to sell. To put that more positively, as long as your underlying story is authentic and compelling, people will want to read it. Having a catchy title probably helps, too.

*The author was born in 1939, even before the baby boom

Here’s another good review of Fat Girl.


Originally published on WordPress on Sept. 29, 2009