13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad review: weighty matters
This debut novel is a razor-sharp, mordantly funny look at self-induced starvation
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
When The Beauty Myth was published in 1990, Germaine Greer deemed it the most important feminist publication since The Female Eunuch. With the natural inferiority of women argument debunked by second-wave feminism, Naomi Wolf’s book viewed our modern obsession with dieting as its replacement, a socially engineered phenomenon that “is the most potent political sedative in women’s history”. Striving to live up to an ideal of beauty, one that is constantly beamed at us through the media and advertising, Wolf posited that women’s bodies are not their own but society’s.
American writer Mona Awad has taken on this issue in her brilliant debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. With the title a nod to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Awad’s interlinked stories take the grim topic of self-induced starvation and manage to turn narrator Lizzie’s miserable existence into a book that is empathetic, engaging and bitingly funny. Identity is at the core of the book, with Lizzie’s name changing multiple times as we follow her from overweight teenager to a divorced neurotic thirtysomething. Beth, Lizzie, Bess, Elizabeth, Betty – the narrator sheds her name as she sheds the pounds, all the while shedding any hope at having a fulfilling life.
Lizzie doesn’t so much live as exist. In the early chapters, she obsesses over her weight with best friend Mel, already inured to a culture of comparison. A shift to the perspective of a contemptible older man shows what society is teaching her about who she is, a young woman, “transformed, as she always seems to do around this time of night, into something you could almost love for an hour”.
There is a drollness throughout the novel, no matter how dire the predicaments, such as when middle-aged Britta shows up and confronts Lizzie about sleeping with her man: “Getting hit in the mouth with a harmonica – even a chromatic one – is way down on the list of the doctor’s priorities”.
Judging Britta, Lizzie feels better about herself: “She is bigger than I am. Older. Sadder. More beyond saving. That body-wise, spirit-wise, I’m just a room compared to her sad house.”
Creative chapter titles (“When We Went against the Universe”, “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy”, “The Von Furstenberg and I”) add to the momentum, enticing the reader into each of Lizzie’s new identities. Time is handled well, with stories jumping forward with ease: “I haven’t really grown into my nose yet or discovered the arts of starving myself and tweezing.”
Major events – engagement, relocation, marriage, divorce – are mentioned but passed over in a clever move that shows how tiny and incremental Lizzie’s life is, with all energy expended on her weight. Settings vary from her Ontario hometown of Mississauga (Misery Saga) to San Francisco to the desert base she shares with her husband Tom, but the geography inside Lizzie’s head maps the same terrain over and over.
In “The Girl I Hate” Beth’s frenemy at work devours scones at lunch, while needling Beth about her meagre diet and the restrictive way she lives: “At home, I eat the other half of my salad with the other half of the honey Dijon dressing.”
Awad has an MFA in Fiction from Brown University and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Walrus and St Petersburg Review. Her first novel recalls the mordant humour and honesty of another recently published debut, Love Me Back, by the Texan writer Merritt Tierce. In subject and voice, there are echoes of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, but neither has the wit of 13 Ways of Looking at a F at Girl.
Awad moves skilfully from wry observation to emotional depth. The death of Lizzie’s mother, who also spent her life struggling with weight issues, is crystallised in an argument with a dry-cleaning assistant. Before she dies, her mother lives vicariously through Lizzie, fetishising her daughter’s weight loss by buying her lurid body-con dresses and parading her around San Francisco like a show-pony.
The other poignant storyline is the disintegration of Lizzie’s marriage. No self-love means no chance of loving her husband. Tom’s perspective is particularly harrowing as he watches his marriage shrivel: “All the other kumquat-like items he can never identify that his life is suddenly full of, funking up his fridge and making all the bones inside his wife more visible.”
In later chapters, set in a gated-community world, Lizzie can see the damage she is doing to herself and, perhaps most tragically, the futility of her endeavours. Like her neighbour who continues to pedal in the gym even while the fire alarm blares, she is stuck in a hellish cycle of hunger, anger and guilt.
Or, in Awad’s words: “She’s like a soap opera that you tune into after ten years only to find the plot hasn’t moved an inch.”