Twenty-four-year-old Rachel, who works at a Hollywood talent agency, wasn’t always this way. Her mother, obsessed with thinness, was oblivious to that obsession’s effects on her daughter. As a teenager, when Rachel confesses that she thinks she has an eating disorder, her mother responds: “Anorexics are much skinnier than you.” Adult Rachel measures out her days in coffee spoons filled with Splenda and yearns for lunchtime salads packed with as much no-calorie lettuce as she can persuade the Subway clerk to add. As a sop to her sad diet, she indulges in mommy-centric sexual fantasies about an older female colleague.
Now Rachel’s therapist wants her to try a 90-day fast — from her mother. “Setting boundaries doesn’t always feel good,” says Dr. Mahjoub. “Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” As Rachel lets her mother’s messages go unanswered, she craves forbidden food, the kind with salt and fat and sugar. On a visit to her favorite frozen-yogurt shop, Yo!Good, run by a family of Orthodox Jews, she meets Miriam. “Above all, she was fat: undeniably fat, irrefutably fat. She wasn’t thick, curvy, or chubby. She surpassed plump, eclipsed heavy. She was fat, and she exceeded my worst fears for my own body.”
Rachel finds Miriam’s overweight body strange and alien. Dr. Mahjoub invites Rachel to fashion something from “Theraputticals” clay, and Rachel creates a multicolored female figure, more Venus of Willendorf than Venus de Milo. She reconsiders fleshiness, and finds herself starving. She eats chocolate mousse cake and burritos and gummy fish and pad thai. She hangs out more with Miriam, who invites her to see “Charade” and dine at a slightly seedy kosher Chinese restaurant called the Golden Dragon. Miriam’s unabashed enjoyment of her tropical drink and pu pu platter unlock something deep in Rachel’s soul. She has the hots for something truly forbidden: a large woman.
As Rachel eats, she gains weight and has vivid dreams. Some feature Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who reportedly fashioned the 16th-century Golem of Prague from river mud. A jolly figure here, the rabbi urges her to enjoy life: “The spiritual world and the physical world go hand in hand,” he says.
Although Rachel is curious about Miriam’s spiritual life, especially jealous of the ease Miriam and her family share, it is more in physical ways that they connect. Rachel’s Theraputticals version of a golem functions as a metaphor for the colors and size she longs for her in life. Broder’s second novel combines her singular style with adventures of the calorie- and climax-filled kind, sumptuous fillings surrounded by perfectly baked plot.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Melissa Broder
Scribner. 304 pp. $26