I once met a woman who had no issues with food or her body. Just kidding! I’m sure there are people like that, but none that I know. I went on my first diet — the Scarsdale Diet — in seventh grade. I recently found the first entry in my food diary. First day: Height: 5’6. Weight: 109 lbs. On the last day I weighed 114 lbs. And so it began.
I’m guessing that somewhere Mona Awad has some food diaries stashed away, too. In her sharp novel-in-stories, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl,” Awad follows the life of Elizabeth, a woman whose identity shifts along with her weight: At first she’s Lizzie, the chunky teen; then Beth, the food-obsessed college student; then Elizabeth, the svelte married woman with an eating disorder; and finally, Liz, in her 30s, thin but wanting.
The way food and body image define Elizabeth’s life is depressing and sad. But the book is neither. There is so much humor here — much of it dark, but spot on, like Dolores in Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” or Lena Dunham in “Girls.”
The narrative begins with Lizzie in a suburban McDonald’s where she and her best friend, Mel, wearing their Catholic school uniforms and sipping McFlurrys, talk about performing a sex act on a man at a nearby table. Immediately you get the idea: They fiercely and openly loathe their bodies. “We get another McFlurry and talk about how fat we are for a while,” Lizzie says, “But it doesn’t matter how long we talk about it or how many times Mel assures me. She’s a f---king whale beneath her clothes; I know I’m fatter.”
Lizzie’s mother is also heavy and takes her daughter shopping at an awful plus-sized store where she searches desperately for clothes without ruffles and sparkles and epaulets. Lizzie’s parents are divorced, and Lizzie’s dad, who believes that being fat is a choice, is mostly not in the picture. It comes as no surprise that Lizzie moves from one inappropriate boyfriend to another.
The particulars of Lizzie’s life, though, are almost beside the point. She is an everywoman, and Awad deftly captures the many indignities that she — that we — experience around food and weight.
Take dressing room culture. In one scene a sales person named Trixie tells Lizzie that everything she tries on looks “cute” and wants to see her in it (ack!). She uses that grating phrase, “How are we doing?” as Lizzie forces herself inside too-small outfits. When an item of clothing is bursting at the seams, Trixie recommends a scarf to hide the offense. “Cute,” she says again, giving Lizzie the once-over. But this means nothing. To Trixie, “even the apocalypse is cute. Scorched earth. Galloping black horses foaming at the mouth. The shadow of the scythe-wielding dealer of Fate bearing down on her. All super cute.”
Lizzie’s inner dialogue is scathingly funny, especially around people she can’t stand — which is a lot of people. There is, for example, her skinny co-worker, in the aptly titled story, “The Girl I Hate.” This slender colleague of course adores food. In one hilarious scene, Lizzie watches the woman devour a pastry dramatically, a la Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally. . .”: “Gobs of clotted cream catch in either corner of her lips. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes, starts to make what must be the groaning noises,” Lizzie observes. “She’s too high on scone to really carry on a conversation. She’s so high, she’s swinging her little stick legs back and forth underneath her seat like a child and doing this side-to-side dance with her head.”
And yet, Lizzie’s anger ends in a bittersweet epiphany. At a restaurant, she watches her friend eat an enormous sandwich before wolfing down a slice of pineapple upside-down cake. “By the time the waitress sets that slice in front of her,” Lizzie says, “I’ll have finished eating half of my veggie delite wrap, even though I will eat as slowly as possible. By the time she cuts into her cake, my hands will be empty. And with her mouth full of cake, she’ll say something about how I’ve only eaten half the wrap. . . . And I’ll have to say something awkward about wanting to save this other half for later, which we’ll both know is a lie. I might even ask the waitress for a to-go bag, but she won’t be fooled. She’ll look at me like, Huh, and take another bite of pineapple cake.” Lizzie’s humiliation turns to something more complicated: “the hate shifts, spreads its wings in me, becomes almost electric, like love.”
There are so many moments like this one, where humor winds its way to a darker truth. As you watch Lizzie navigate fraught relationships — with food, men, girlfriends, her parents and even with herself — you’ll want to grab a friend and say: “Whoa. This. Exactly.” Simultaneously tart and tender, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl” is stunning.
Julie Klam is the author, most recently, of “Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without.”
by Mona Awad
Penguin. 214 pp. Paperback, $16