Monday, January 14, 2008

Fat Girl Deeply Disturbing, Absolutely Riveting


Grading Fat Girl by Judith Moore is impossible. I've been thinking about the book ever since I finished it, and I still can't decide whether I liked it or not. One critic called it "brilliant and angry and unsettling." I agree with the "angry and unsettling," but I don't know if I would go so far as to call it brilliant. It was definitely thought-provoking, but brilliant? I don't even know if I liked it or not.

Basically, the book is a memoir chronicling Moore's life as an overweight girl and woman. From the beginning, she is frank, saying:

Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won't. I will not endear myself. I won't put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am.
And she's right. She is not pleasant. Not at all. She describes - coldly and bitterly - what it is like to be an overweight woman. From the injury of insults shouted by teenage boys, to the pain of not fitting into plus-sized pantyhose to the horror on a friend's face when she says she's in love with him, Moore tells it all. Still, in the first third of the book, I found her to be a mean, unlikeable narrator.

When Moore begins talking about her childhood, however, I couldn't stop reading. It was heartbreaking. Sad. And undeniably compelling. She endured a bleak childhood, unloved by her mother and abandoned by her father. Starved for love, she turned to food. If that sounds cliche, she offers other - more disturbing - examples of how emotionally scarred she was:

I began to chew my fingernails. I turned into a voracious eater whose meal was herself. I ripped and I tore at the flesh around my child nails; I licked, delicately and hungrily, at the blood that popped up in bright droplets at my chubby fingers' ends. I ate myself raw. (123)
The majority of the book reads like this, describing how lonely and painful she was as a child. The only glimmers of happiness in her life are imagined or real, but short-lived. She talks about the months she lived with her kind uncle, a joyous respite that was cut short when her cancer-stricken grandmother came to live with him. Life in the once happy house soon turned terrifying for young Judith, who had to sit by her mean-spirited Grammy, listening to the woman whimper, "I hurt" and "I don't want to die."

I hoped things would look up for Judith, but they didn't. She grew from an unhappy girl into an unhappy woman. In the book's forward, Moore promises not to sugar coat anything. And she doesn't. She swears, "Rockettes will not arrive on the final page and kick up their high heels and show their petticoats" (2-3), and they don't. Fat Girl does not have a nice, triumphant ending. What it does have is truth, truth so real that it hurts.

Judith Moore's writing is interesting. I mentioned that she isn't a warm and engaging storyteller. She is frank. She is honest. But, she is also coldly matter-of-fact. Her sentences are often awkward, like this one: "Uncle Carl, I don't know where he was, but we were not having the family meal with him" (176). In contrast, she offers brutal, but strong descriptions like this one about her maternal grandmother:

She was the Nazi of the barnyard, entirely businesslike in these procedures, and it seemed not to bother her when blood soaked her apron and blood dried in splotches on her bare arms and legs and in the folds of her neck. "If you want to eat you got to kill," she said, when I ran in fright from her.

You can see how ambivalent I am about this book. In one way, it is repulsive in its revelations of hate and abuse (and in several descriptions of sexual acts); in another, it is both compelling and moving. It is well-written in some respects, not so much in others. I couldn't stop reading, but I don't think I would have finished the book if I hadn't chosen it for the Triple 8 Challenge. I'm not even sure if I would recommend it to a friend. Is it angry? Yes. Is it disturbing? Yes. Is it riveting? Absolutely. Am I encouraging you to read it? Not really. I wish I could be more decisive, but I just can't. It's deeply disturbing, utterly heartbreaking, and absolutely riveting.

Grade: C

7 comments:

  1. At the end, do you detect even an inkling of hope?

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  2. No, Joy, not even an inkling. To be fair, Moore warns in the beginning that it's not a warm and fuzzy kind of book, but still...

    She does eventually get married and have 2 kids. I wondered if they brought her any happiness, because I read interviews with them in which they really praised her mothering skills. She didn't discuss that though - she mostly talks about her childhood.

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  3. This is a really excellent review.

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  4. I'm moved by your review of this book, and yet, I know I won't choose to read it. I'm not up to the feeling the pain and anger right now. I admire Moore for using writing as a means of self-examination and really hope that enough people will read her biography to encourage her to continue writing in some way. Writing may be a means for Moore to find success and a release from the self-destructive anger and hurt that dominate her life.

    Thanks for a great review!

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  5. Jenclair - Moore is actually dead, but I think she wrote one other book. I'm not planning to read it. Her writing is just too angry for me. Fat Girl was depressing. Fascinating, but depressing.

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  6. Some books are so misery and issue laden that I wonder if they flipped a coin - heads I go to a therapist, tails I write a book. There is an art form to writing a truly good memoir and this looks like it missed. Excellent review and thank you for sharing your ambivalence.

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  7. I haven't read this book yet. The first few pages make me uncomfortable because it reminds me of stories my mom (who is near Moore's age) who was a fat little girl and had a thin chic mother who sneered at her and had her on crash diets well before she was ten years old.

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