*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.
In The Fat Friend by Julie Edelson, published by Baskerville Publishers in 2004, forty-seven-year-old Shell meets up with Tru, a friend from her school-girl days, after months of not seeing each other. While Shell describes herself as “a plump little bratwurst in black,” Tru is the fat friend, who “resembled a clump of Parker House rolls.” During their lunch dates over the next several months (and each lunch date is a new chapter), Tru monopolizes the conversation, telling stories about people Shell has never met. Because The Fat Friend is in first-person, we know Shell really wants to talk about problems with her husband, son, daughter, and job. But Tru won’t shut up. It’s a scratchy relationship that benefits mostly Tru, suddenly starts losing weight . . .
Author Julie Edelson’s style can be quite funny. At a restaurant, a waiter tries to take Shell’s and Tru’s plates. Shell notes, “I sat back, but Tru circled her vegetables with her arms and went limp as she’d been trained to do in civil disobedience workshops.” Here, I’m laughing about protesting over the right to eat vegetables, even though they’re practically sacred to her, thanks to her restricted eating.
Edelson’s style can be confusing. She chooses weird verbs to tag speech, like “grimped” and “spunked.” I appreciate the creativity, but don’t know what these words imply.
There are also confusing style choices in Shell’s internal monologue. Other voices jump in, but it’s not always clear whose. For instance, Shell takes Tru into her kitchen to say hello to Shell’s husband, Si, who hasn’t see Tru in ages and is surprised that she’s getting thin. Si is often called “Golden Hands” for being happy to fix other people’s things (but never fixes his own, for some reason). Here’s what happens; again, Shell is a first-person narrator:
Tru embraced him, tipping up that new chin — Why Ashley Wilkes! Did I say that my husband is sexy? Women can sense that, sometimes, he can be good. Not near often enough, mind you; same old Golden Hands — just look at the half-assed projects around here — it’s possible he has a few half-assed projects elsewhere. (“I’m only saying this for your own good, Rochelle: no man in his right mind wants a fat girl.” “You’ll always know Si loves you for yourself, honey.”)
To break it down, I believe Shell thinks her husband thinks that he’s as charming as Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. However, he never finishes projects at home and possibly starts and fails to complete projects in another woman’s home. In her head, Shell can hear her husband tell her to not be fat, but is a hypocrite when he claims he loves her just the way she is.
While the plot doesn’t fully come together, the characters make the book compelling. Tru is snarky; early in the novel when she is fat, a waitress inconspicuously jabs her for it after the waitress asks what they want to drink:
“Ice tea for me,” I said.
Tru said, “And I’ll have a peach smoothie and some water, please,” studying the menu.
“That’s completely fat-free,” Emily said, writing. Tru looked up at her. Emily clicked her pen at my menu. “What kind of tea to you want?”
I surveyed the blur of choices. Tru said, “Skip it. We’ll both have the holy water.” I laughed.
“That’s two waters.”
“Right,” Tru said, “and a peach smoothie and an iced tea. You’ll figure it out.”
Edelson’s novel is also honest. As Tru gets thinner, people ask how she’s lost weight. “Through intense suffering,” she replies. When she’s very small, Shell tells her, “You look fantastic. But what does it matter what you look like?” Tru bluntly replies, “I never thought I’d hear anything that stupid coming from you.” Fat people are hyper aware of how they look and fit into the world. Tru trusts Shell to be honest, and take honest criticism.
But how is the fat representation in this novel? It didn’t play as big of a role as I thought it would. Tru gets smaller, not bigger. She reflects slightly on fatness. For instance, she calls out Shell on her bias: “Of course you’re conditioned to think less of a man who’d make a pass at a heavy woman . . . . As though it has to be kinky.” As she gets smaller and more confused about her body, Tru admits, “I don’t know what the fuck I look like anymore.” While Edelson’s novel wasn’t inspiring or kind to bodies, it does show the gray areas — love and hate — of relationships fat women have with their bodies. It looks at how losing fat doesn’t change a fat person.
The Fat Friend is a compelling novel, one that still feels fragmented as a result of Tru telling a new long story about people the narrator doesn’t know in each of the first several chapters, which can make the reader confused and wonder what the plot arc will be. But, experiencing the humor, a new writing style, and what happens to Shell and Tru can make it worth the read.