Vow of Celibacy is one of those books that turned me off immediately in two ways: 1) The title. Why must the fat woman be celibate?! 2) The first three sentences, which read, “Anastaze called me at 6:57 a.m. this morning. I left my ringer on for this very reason. Anastaze (pronounced “anna-STAYS”). . .” I hate the redundancy — so lazy, so early in the book — and a first-person narrator giving pronunciation notes. Is the name so hard, or should a different name have been chosen? And for whom is she pronouncing it?
At its most basic, the novel is about Natalie, who visits her past, asking why she’s had lots of good sex but never a dating relationship. In her current life, Natalie works as a production manager (like me!) for a small company, organizing fashion shows in places like the mall. Her best friend, Anastaze, is a famous anonymous blogger who has never had sex and struggles with falling in love with people she barely knows. I wasn’t even thrilled with the summary of Vow of Celibacy because it sounds like two stereotypes walking around. In fact, they sounded a lot like the main characters in A Girl’s Guide to Vampires. I read it because I’m trying to give all fat lady books a chance.
Erin Judge completely won me over with realistic characters, funny writing, sex positivity, and starting a conversation about diet culture. Judge avoids every stereotype you find in a summary. I enjoyed Vow of Celibacy immensely, and am sad it’s over. It’s one of the best books starring a fat woman that I’ve read for my quest to read positive books with a fat female protagonist who doesn’t diet or date her way to happiness.
Early in the novel, Judge establishes that protagonist and narrator Natalie has visited a therapist and worked to “become more comfortable with food and [her] natural size. [She’s] not all the way there. . . .[but] Diet ideations are few and far between these days.” Part of seeking help teaches Natalie that having sex gives her “a reprieve from [her] otherwise-constant body hatred.” Hooray! Judge gives us a character who is in dieting rehab, basically, who explains what dieting has done to her. In the present, Natalie does not diet and tells people who start diet talking that she’s not comfortable having that conversation with them. Empowerment!
As a warning, there are parts when Natalie’s mother is a serious bummer, shaming Natalie and showing readers where our narrator learned to hate herself. Her mother says things like “. . .it just seems a shame that instead of finally getting in shape, you’ve just resigned yourself to being obese, which is very unhealthy. . .” I didn’t want to quote this passage and give it life on my blog, but I think it’s important to note that her mother uses the health and weight argument. You can do your own research, but let me reiterate that a person’s weight gives you so little indication of their health — and you are not a doctor. And at what point have you ever visited a doctor, had them just look at you, and determine you are sick? I realize that if you’re fat, you likely have had that experience, and it’s time to move on to a new doctor.
Even though Natalie realizes sex distracts her from negative thoughts, Vow of Celibacy is sex positive! The descriptions take you into the moment without being so graphic you feel squeamish in the wrong way. Natalie reflects on losing her virginity in a moment that recreated her feelings believably: “The part where he put on a condom and entered me felt both momentous and incidental, like an extremely big deal and an insignificant combination of parts and motions all at the same time.” Judge includes many moments in which you’re with Natalie having sex, but removed a polite distance.
Also,Vow of Celibacy is quite funny. It’s not a comedy, but Natalie’s personality leans toward snarky in a way that doesn’t make you wish she’d grow up. Joining a guy a few years older than she and friend Anastaze, Natalie reveals she knows nothing about wine:
“How do you guys know so much about wine?”
Ben looked at Staze. “From growing up, I guess. My mom had a big thing for Côtes du Rhône.”
“My father loves Côtes du Rhône too,” Staze agreed. “Also Montepulciano.”
“My father thinks Pert Plus is the greatest invention in world history,” I added, still laughing.
Natalie isn’t the only strong, funny woman. A plus-size model who befriends Natalie gets her a gig on the runway, something Natalie never thought she’d do because she had no interest in modeling! The day of the runway show arrives, and Natalie refuses to get out of the show because she’s so nervous. The model friend enters and says, “Jesus, there’s enough steam in here to power a small engine.” I love the way amazing women populate Vow of Celibacy and never come off as “the cool girl” or phony.
I can’t neglect to mention the depiction of a bisexual woman. Natalie is not ashamed of herself, and the author never pushes her to demure from a sexual experience she wants to have, and is comfortable having. Anastaze is supportive of her friend, easily navigating Natalie’s history of lovers, be they men or women. At one point, a lesbian who has not come out accuses Natalie of being “lucky” because, she implies, Natalie can hide and be “normal” by just dating men. Natalie doesn’t let her get away with this, exchanging some cruel barbs of her own in defense.
After reading The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories in which one character horribly accuses another of having a “bag of bisexual tricks,” I appreciated a fat bisexual woman who surrounds herself with supportive friends who don’t make her defend her sexuality incessantly. And more impressively, the pieces of her identity that one might call diversity is not what’s memorable about Natalie, making her all the more human and enjoyable to read about. Highly recommended: Vow of Celibacy by Erin Judge.