With excoriating wit and broadly cast disdain, Mona Awad writes the story of Elizabeth (Lizzie, Beth, Liz – it seems to depend on her mood), a “fat girl” growing up in suburban Canada and fumbling to find her place in the world. Lizzie is being raised by her single mom, whose control of Lizzie (if it ever existed) seems to have stowed away in her husband’s luggage when he left her years ago. Through 13 vignettes, each a window showing a different angle on Lizzie’s life, Awad works to put her reader inside the skin of this self-loathing, angst-ridden young woman.
In the beginning, teenage Lizzie tells the reader, “I haven’t really grown into my nose yet or discovered the arts of starving myself and tweezing.” The arts she has learned – in addition to self-deprecating humor – are selling herself short and, essentially, selling herself. Lizzie is willing to attach herself to any man who gives her attention, regardless of how repulsive or wildly inappropriate he is.
“Now he looks at me like he’s familiar with the details of my most unfortunate pair of underwear. Has fingered the fraying scalloped edge. Waggled the limp pink bow. Held the MADE IN CAMBODIA tag between his teeth.”
Not surprisingly, given the title, Lizzie is obsessed with her weight – with her appearance, and with everyone else’s.
“My father has always felt that being fat was a choice. When I was in college I would sometimes meet him for lunch or coffee, and he would stare at my extra flesh like it was some weird piece of clothing I was wearing just to annoy him. Like my fat was an elaborate turban or Mel’s zombie tiara or some anarchy flag that, in my impetuous youth, I was choosing to hold up and wave in his face. Not really part of me, just something I was doing to rebel, prove him wrong.”
Conversely, Lizzie seems to believe that being fat is her essence, her very core. From an overweight teenager to a starved, exercise-addicted adult, Lizzie systematically tries to excise this part of herself, simultaneously fearing and longing for it. When she is at her heaviest, she turns her nose up at other fat women yet despises those who are thin.
“I look at her. Her tight black slacks covered in little dog hairs. One of those awful Addition Elle sweaters my mother and I would never buy. The ones they sell at the back of the store with all the lame bells and whistles that no self-respecting fat woman would ever purchase. Sweaters for the women who have given up on style. Sweaters for the women who just want their flesh to be covered.”
When she herself has dramatically lost weight, it seems that she has also lost all warmth and personality. This Lizzie (now Elizabeth, then Beth, then Liz) is deeply dissatisfied and unable to enjoy life, surrounding herself with tight dresses and tasteless food. She still loathes thin women, but now finds herself inexplicably drawn to those who remind her of herself and her mother at their most corpulent. She is a hollow, angry, stoic shadow of the girl she once was; indeed, she seems to have lost her essence.
“13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl” is an unsubtle commentary on our weight-obsessed culture. Though I thought it was very well written, it lost steam at the mid-point. Not only did Elizabeth lose her sense of self and certainly her sense of humor, but the writing itself seemed to list and lose focus. The thinned-down Elizabeth has lost her luster not just for those around her but, possibly, for Awad as well. Perhaps this change in tone was intentional, a contrived part of Awad’s commentary. Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, I found it off-putting and a bit disappointing. Despite this flaw, I think Awad’s writing is fresh, barbed, and bitingly funny. Her debut demonstrates talent and point of view which foretells a promising future.
Thank you to Penguin Books for providing a complimentary review copy.