Fat Girls & Fairy Cakes by Sue Watson

The following book has been selected as part of my search to find positive representations of folks who identify as fat women in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. That positive representation will not hinge on the character being miserable and then happy after losing weight or falling in love. Characters can lose weight or fall in love, but it is not the catalyst for their happiness. I also will not recommend books in which the character pulls her body apart (I call this the “chicken dinner”) and criticize pieces.

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.


Dear Ms. Sue Watson:

I’m writing to my followers about your 2011 book, Fat Girls and Fairy Cakes. Firstly, thanks for using the word “fat.” Most people think it’s a bad word, but I have a whole webpage devoted to finding fat women in books. So, thanks for that! Also, I didn’t know “fairy cakes” was British for “cupcake.” I think.

For me, reading a book with such a saccharine title is a risk, risky because I’ll likely guess everything that happens before it does and start skimming the pages to confirm my suspicions. I mean, look at the cover!

fairy-cakes

You surprised me, though, Ms. Watson. Not once did I guess which direction the book would go. Well, the main character had to make cake eventually, but I was surprised that she started as a TV producer. Other than that, you left clues that misdirected me, and I applaud you! I only thought people did such things in mystery novels, but these tactics prove effective in romances, too.

on birthday cakes: a fairy garden cake!
I thought this was a fairy cake.

Because their lives weren’t spelled out from chapter one, I cared about your characters. Stella, your 40-something narrator, was quite vicious. I mean, she wanted some people dead! When her boss makes her angry, Stella goes all Full Metal Jacket in her head:

I would shoot her like a target at a fairground, hook a duck, hit a can, and win a teddy. And as her veins bulged and her malevolent orange lips slurped the calorie-free liquid, I slowly pulled that imaginary trigger and blew off Mary Jane Robinson’s head.

Shouldn’t this make me worried? I’m not so sure. I can imagine a suburban mom getting quite angry, especially when she’s having problems with her distant husband and nine-year-old daughter going through a goth phase. When things with the husband go down a dark and stormy road, Ms. Watson, you keep things realistic. Nothing gets cheesy, and I thought Stella handled the emotional Christmas scene beautifully (even if she does bludgeon someone with a turkey). After all, nasty people aren’t forgiven because there are presents and a tree.

fairy cup cakes
Apparently, these are fairy cakes.

Did you know you’re funny, Ms. Watson? It’s one of your best qualities. Surely, you’ve noticed how lacking your punctuation is (I’ve fixed all the quotes included; you’re welcome), but readers like me will forget such issues if we laugh. Things looked bleak when Stella’s boss transferred Stella to a different department to produce a show about gardens and religion. Stella assures us no one would watch such garbage, but she has to make a show anyway:

So there I was, in darkest Rochdale, up to my neck in compost and Christ, reluctantly producing the department’s latest offering, now titled Is God in the Garden?, billed as “a seasonal exploration of the influence of God on and around nature against the backcloth of a church garden,” but which was rapidly becoming a “sex-fueled romp through the boggy English countryside” (with a few bulbs and a bit of Jesus).

Aren’t you a hoot!

But tell me, Ms. Watson. Do you hate your body? I’ve seen your author photo. Even though it looks like it’s a taken from a drone in the sky, I can see that you’re fat, just like me. So why, then, did you make Stella hate her body so desperately? And why do her friends confirm her feelings? Stella admits that if she loses weight she can squeeze into what is a size 8 in the United States. Do you know how small that is, Ms. Watson? It’s smaller than the average woman in my country. And to prove that Stella is fat, you have her constantly eating dessert. Constantly. But much like Bridget Jones, Stella has always just started a diet. When she starts consuming diet meals (fruity versions of Slim Fast), I couldn’t help but wish I were reading Dietland instead, in which an anti-diet spy would reach out to Stella and reintroduce her to actual food.

While your main character did not diet or date her way to happiness, I sure wish Stella and her friends had been kinder to themselves and each other. There was a lot of celebration over failed relationships that led to depression, which led to losing weight. There’s a lot of tummy tucking and chin hiding (exactly how does one hide one’s neck?). Here’s the odd thing, Ms. Watson: had you left all mentions of fat shaming out of your book, it wouldn’t have changed the plot or characters one ounce. Not one. So, if you’re going to write fat characters in the future, here’s some advice: 1) actually make them fat, 2) let them eat all food, not just dessert and diet food, 3) create friends who don’t humiliate your fat character, or better yet, write some friends of various sizes.

You were so close, Ms. Watson. So close!

Sincerely,

Grab the Lapels

p.s. I ended up trying to bake my own fairy cakes! Check out Parts 2 and 3 of my baking adventure!

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47 comments

  1. I like the way you approach the review here – I really do. And I know what you mean about Stella having (or developing, anyway) a sense of confidence in what she looks like. I’m glad that you found some things to like about the book, though.

    • Thanks. I don’t know why, but a letter felt right. I think because this book DID have so much potential, avoiding where many rom-com novels fail, that I wanted the review to feel more personal.

  2. Yes, fairy cakes are cupcakes, so funny there are two names for them. I loved this way of reviewing and what a shame because she did so well up to that point …

  3. what a good way to do a review…. I never think of cupcakes and fairy cakes as being the same beasts. The former tend to have about twice as much sugary goo on the top as the latter….

  4. Well I think your picture of fairy cakes is accurate, though I must say the addition of the little jujubes on top seems excessive. Fairy cakes should be small and light with just a thin layer of icing (frosting) sometimes coloured or flavoured – like chocolate. Yum!

    The punctuation would kill it for me however much it made me laugh…

  5. I love the format of this review! There are many times I’ve considered writing in this format, only to stop myself because I didn’t think anyone would like the format. I consider myself proven incorrect!

    I’m sad that this book didn’t have great fat representation. 😦 But the book, aside from that, seems to be pretty worthwhile. The question is: Do you think that the reader can get something valuable out of this book despite the poor representation? Is this the sort of book you’d want to prep someone for ahead of time, warn them of the poor representation before you had them read it? I worry about this sometimes– people might not recognize this as poor representation… you know?

    • I think people read about women dieting and see it as normal because, in a way, it is. Honestly, if I had a paperback version, I would take a sharpie and cross out the diet stuff. The book wouldn’t change in plot or major characterization. Maybe I should gift the book that way, lol. I think I would warn readers (and I do on my fat reading goals page). I try to remember my objective but not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      I wonder if I wrote a letter because I had just read Dear Fahrenheit 451!

  6. I really love this review! I would have assumed the same thing about the book as you, based on the cover. I’m glad to hear it was a pretty good book – you’ve even tempted me – except for the fat shaming and dieting. But I can’t say that I’m surprised.
    I think in “Mile End” she eats pretty normal food. In fact, at times I was worried about her because she didn’t seem to be eating enough! But she drank a lot of coffee and a lot of wine.

  7. I landed here from your fairy cakes experiment. Now you have me thinking of books that featured fat women. The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell (which I remember being very funny though it might not meet your criteria for body positivity; I’m not sure as it’s been a while since I read it) and Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale in which one of the characters struggles with weight (I guess the struggle part of her storyline would be a disqualifier but I remember her sisterhood of close friends being very affirming). When I think about it, books where a fat woman’s size is not a problem just a part of her are rare. Hmmm. Off the top, only Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Lady’s Detective Agency comes to mind (I remember her weight being just a matter of fact and her being self-assured). I, too, liked your approach to the review (and the tone of your blog generally). Appreciate you pressing on with the review in spite of your issues with the book. The punctuation issue may have been my line though as I find that very distracting (nobody’s perfect but good punctuation and grammar are minimums for me so that I can focus on the story). Do you have a favourite so far re fat girl books?

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