The F Word has a description that starts like so many women’s fiction novels: Olivia Morten is a perfect woman, size two, and totally kickass at work, where she managers the images of celebrities. That famous actor in the superhero movie? She keeps it secret that he got drunk in public. The pretty actress everyone loves to hate is now getting divorced? Olivia figures out how to make that actress relatable so the public doesn’t think she deserves to be cheated on by her husband. Speaking of husbands, Olivia is married to a sexy surgeon (I kept picturing Chase from House) and they have a gorgeous home. If that was all this book had to offer, I would have tossed it in the donate box.
But Olivia Morten used to be fat — like, really fat — in high school. And she was bullied (or was she?) by the football player Ben Dunn. Ben was sooo cute, and sooo cool, and slept with all the cheerleaders. In order to not walk around in a size two body and be haunted by her fat self, Olivia had to destroy the person she was, keeping that fat girl hidden from her husband, her coworkers, her friends, and herself.
Thus, behind her professional success is a very boring person. Olivia has eaten the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner for fifteen years to avoid getting fat again. Most of us would call her meals “a light snack.” She’s at the gym every day. She’s never been naked with the lights on in front of her husband due to her shame about old stretch marks and body reconstruction surgery. That, and we know something is up the way Mr. Doctor Husband always has some hospital emergency that lasts all night. Of course, early in the novel she bumps into Ben freaking Dunn after fifteen years and the story is set in motion.
Liza Palmer has this great knack for writing hilarious secondary characters that make the novel come alive. Early on we meet Nanette, the new trophy wife of an the hospital director, who is, of course, an old man, at a small dinner Olivia and Dr. Husband are hosting. Every scene in which Nanette appears made me belly laugh out loud. Olivia shares her thoughts about the buxom blonde:
. . . Nanette Peterman is most likely the dumbest person I’ve ever met — and in Los Angeles that’s saying something. When we were first introduced I asked her what her interests were and she answered, “I like outside.”
And Nanette isn’t just there to raise the old hospital director’s status; Olivia is happy to befriend this empty vessel because she knows that having beautiful friends raises Olivia beyond anonymity herself. This behavior is left over from when she was a fat teen, meaning her body made her both highly visible and completely invisible in society. While it feels mean to laugh at Nanette — and I did, several times — she represents a conversation about beauty and thinness. Not expected to do anything other than be pretty, Nanette has fitted her role perfectly and reaffirmed society’s emphasis on sex and appearance.
The conversation about appearances continue when at the same dinner party another guest notes that the famous celebrity Caroline Lang might be leaving her husband because the tabloids have posted tons of photos of him with a pretty Swedish actress not yet twenty. The guest rages that no one cares about celebrities, that such gossip is trash, and “Caroline Whatever-her-name-is” is probably trash, too. Caroline is actually one of Olivia’s clients, and in her efforts to defend the actress, Caroline says:
“Being a woman can be such a mystery sometimes, we unconsciously look to these celebrities as surrogate mentors for our own femininity. They appear to be so natural, that we look to them to set the standard. . . . I’d even go so far as to say that you owe your very marriage and current happiness to non other than Caroline Whatever-her-name-is.”
Conversations about what shapes society’s definition of women, how pop culture and reality clash, and the performances we all engage in on social media to create a life that we want others to believe — even if it’s not real — are woven in throughout the novel, elevating it beyond your basic beach read about the seemingly-perfect marriage.
Even though this book is about a very thin woman, I would categorize it as fat positive. Olivia’s shaped by her time as a fat girl, cannot forget the way she was smart and determined, sometimes rage-filled, and definitely humiliated by strangers and peers alike. Fat is an identity, one that can’t be shoved in a donation bag with the too-large clothes when she becomes thin. Liza Palmer captures all that: the world in which a fat person must exist and how stigmatizing fat people is actually more dangerous to health than being fat. Although Olivia thinks that being fat held her back, the woman she’s become is so locked up and restricted that she’s playing house more than living life. Things go rogue and we start to see this new Olivia, one who isn’t necessarily kind, but is far more authentic.
For instance, after her friend Leah reschedules several times, the two finally meet up for drinks only to discover Leah’s invited buffer friends, a yogi named Elijah with a handlebar mustache who greets Olivia with “namaste,” and a young, beautiful vegan named Jillian. Jillian can’t be convinced that tofu and ahi are not the same thing, and while Leah asks Olivia to just pretend so Jillian can continue to be stupidly happy — because she’s pretty anyway — Olivia refuses to oblige.
“What? No,” I say. Leah’s eyes narrow. “Vegans don’t eat fish. Jillian eats fish, ergo she’s not vegan.”
“But, I don’t eat fish,” Jillian announces, annoyed.
“Let’s just order, okay?” Leah suggests, her voice tight.
“I wonder what they have that’s vegan here,” Jillian muses, looking over the menu.
“Apparently, everything,” I say.
“Wow, someone has an overstimulated fifth chakra,” Elijah says, jumping in.
It’s as if Olivia has been an actor in a play written by society, and now she’s forgetting the lines required to accommodate a sexually attractive person. As she goes rogue, a new character, one whose not as nice or patient just because she’s in the presence of youth and beauty, emerges.
The F Word by Liza Palmer has a variety of genres woven in: romance, women’s fiction, social commentary, fat fiction, humor. She handles them all beautifully, though I know readers have a variety of questions and thoughts about that ending — me included. Highly recommended reading.