*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.
Content Warning: offensive language commonly used by teenagers who thoughtlessly label people different from them (race, heritage, size, physical disabilities, sexual orientation, etc.). A few characters speak poorly of Christianity, and there is an attempted suicide that’s chalked up as just playing (?).
Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell, published by Bloomsbury USA in 2008, in an an Australian YA novel. Since I bought this book based on it’s description, I didn’t know much about it — including the fact that it’s from Australia or that it is YA. Everything Beautiful is about Riley, a teenager whose mother has died and whose father has changed in the process. He meets Norma, who is kind, but that doesn’t matter to Riley. Because Riley can’t seem to stop getting herself into trouble, Norma suggests Riley be sent to a Christian summer camp. Riley is an atheist, not a virgin, not a stranger to smoking and some drug use, and likely won’t fit in at camp thanks to her purple hair, dark clothes, and fat body. She describes herself as “182 pounds and rising.”
The sections of the book are laid out like Genesis: “on the first day,” etc, until day seven to fit with the Christian theme. The first sentence draws you in immediately:
I am the maniac behind the wheel of a stolen dune buggy. Dylan Luck is at my side. We are tearing up the desert, searching for proof of God.
Dylan used to be really into camp, attending every year with his friend; they were the “cool guys.” But in the last year, Dylan became wheelchair bound, and everyone whispers the cause was a failed suicide that started fourteen stories up. Simmone Howell shows Dylan couldn’t care less when he puts out cigarettes on his paralyzed legs and teaches the younger campers about his most prized possession during share time:
“I call these my drifties,” he’s said. “One gives you a kind of fuzzbox effect. Two makes your eyelids feel like they’re made out of cement. Three is the magic number. Three’s when you start to drift away. After four, it depends on your tolerance. Start counting backward from one hundred and see how far you get.” He squared his shoulders. “Prescribed for pain relief. Street value — ” [and then he’s cut off].
While it’s a dark book in places, there’s a lot of humor rooted in realism. Because Riley sees Dylan as someone who cares as little about camp as she does, she seeks him out from time to time. Dylan won’t be a “cool guy” anymore, even though Craig, the other “cool guy,” tries to get him to be the same. Instead, Dylan watches:
“Craig’s got a tight walk,” he observed. “More like a strut. It’s like his dick is the center of his existence. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they walk.”
Dylan’s observation made me laugh because he’s basically pointing out that although Craig is a good Christian camp guy, he’s also a hypocrite. In fact, Craig is more like a frat boy. He and Dylan used to be the alphas, and now Dylan sees Craig for what he really is (and Dylan used to be).
Riley describes how her dad met Norma using snarky teen wording that also had me smiling:
[After mom died] Dad started going to church again, and not just on Sundays. He got involved. It was months of church-activity craziness. He even auditioned for Moses: The Musical. Dad is a terrible singer. His breathing is all over the place. He sings like someone is chasing him — and it turns out someone was. Norma.
Very small funny moments are sprinkled in, too. The Christian camp is a strange place. Most of the campers are twelve years old, but some, like Riley and Dylan, are around sixteen, so the counselors try to “cheer up” these moody teens with canoeing and nature lessons. Riley points out that so much exercise leaves two options: “heart attack or hurl.” She describes, “…[her] flesh sliding around and [her] face going blueberry.” As a fat reader, I understand exactly what she means and laughed in recognition.
Despite my typical hatred of reading teen romances, Simmone Howell keeps the relationship age-appropriate. The characters aren’t fighting to save the entire world together, which leads to grown-up commitment (think Hunger Games and Ready Player One). Riley has sex, and I was proud that she always used condoms. She turns down one guy when they’re half naked because he says he “doesn’t do condoms.” Good for you, girl! There are also many sweet moments: kisses, an exchange of a special gift for remembrances, and nice compliments. And yes, sex (with condoms). Believe it, parents: some teens have sex.
And the fat representation? Other teens at the camp try to shame Riley. When asked, “How much do you weigh?” Riley tells her bunk mates to not touch her stuff. Oh yeah, “And FYI, I weigh a hundred eighty-two pounds and I don’t give a fuck.” When she is sad, Riley admits, “I cried like a girl, a big fat girl. The girl I was.” I love this acknowledgement of who she is with no regrets, no apologies. Riley does realize that she sometimes has sex because it increases her self-esteem in relation to her body, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes she has sex because there is someone around who also wants to have sex. But there is this crumb of sex equaling self-worth in a fat body. I don’t like it, but I remember a lot of teens in high school having sex to prove they were worthy to their peers.
When she’s talking about movies with Dylan, Riley explains what most fat women are thinking (albeit in different wording that I would choose (see content warning)):
“Also, I hate the way you never see fat people on screen unless they’re white trash or retarded or a criminal or all of the above. A fat girl on film is either there for laughs or to gross people out. Unless the film’s about the fat girl’s ‘journey’ to social acceptance through weight loss. Where’s the happy fat girl? That’s what I want to know. Hmmph.”
The language in the quote above is the kind of offensive stuff you will read occasionally. I won’t repeat what’s written, but Riley and the other teens aren’t sensitive with their choice of words. They sound like teens, though the language stands out as offensive to me as an adult. Yet, the poor word choices aren’t on every page.
I’d highly recommend Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell. I never knew what would happen next, and while I found the characters realistic, they weren’t stereotypes. If you don’t lean toward YA, give this novel a try. The plot isn’t a love triangle, nor is it a teen saving the whole world. This isn’t some teens solving an epic puzzle or falling deeply in love while battling a deadly disease. It’s honest and compulsively readable.
If you haven’t already, please vote on which genre I should read next in my Fat Reads Quest!