The F Word by Liza Palmer

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.

27 comments

  1. That’s an interesting trend, writers of light romantic fiction inserting interesting/intelligent discussions into the spaces between the fluff. I recently read Karin Gillespie, Love Literary Style, where the same thing was occurring in relation to literature and writing. I suppose you have to be reasonably bright to write a book and perhaps writers become sick of just knocking out formula trash.

    There has always been a gap between the women I would like to date and the women I would like to live with (I got the two confused once with disastrous results!). How much of that is Hollywood, and how much is some other influence only my therapist could work out, do you think?

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    • I Googled Karin Gillespie, and her books sound hilarious. I’m definitely adding your recommendation to my list.

      I’d argue, much like the character in The F Word, that celebrities play a big role in who you want to date. I’m sure there’s a certain look and polished nature about a woman that’s appealing, meaning you want to date her, but in reality, you’re such a laid back guy that you probably should date a woman who only owns two pairs of shoes.

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  2. Great review! This sounds so interesting. There’s such a problematic mentality in society that “the thinner you are, the happier you are,” so I love that Olivia’s character seems to dig into the possibility that achieving that goal isn’t all it’s held up to be. I also really like the idea that having been a fat person in the past might actually make someone a better thin person because there’s more experience to judge by, and one gets to see both sides of how the world treats beauty differently. It gives a better sense of how big the problem is. And, of course, it’s always fun to see a character going rogue!

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    • What I found interesting is that Olivia maintained being a size 2 for fifteen years by being this restrictive, shut-down woman. She’s eaten the same three meals per day for fifteen years. It’s depressing when you think about it, even though on the outside she has it all together. The fat person she was in the past was more free, but I’m not sure she was actually a better person. Ben points out that Olivia was pretty mean to him, too! I like that the author doesn’t choose to make thin and fat opposites of personality. Overall, the book was really funny and thoughtful.

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      • Ah, I didn’t quite mean to say that she was a better person because she was fat, just that maybe she had a better perspective as a thin person because she would also know what it was like not to be treated the way thin people are. Those who are always thin tend not to notice the benefit of being treated like they have a right to their space. It is actually great that the author doesn’t use size to show people as better or worse, they sound wonderfully complex and thought-provoking.

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        • Oh, yes, I see what you mean! I was just writing to another comment that I worried Olivia was making fun of all these dumb women, which seems hurtful, but because Olivia focused on her studies while fat and then added thinness, she straddles this line, one that reminds her she’s got the picture-perfect life but also that there are women who have always been thin and beautiful and thus never cared about education. Olivia makes fun of them less because she’s mean, but because society has taught these women that they don’t need to be smart if they’re sexy. I don’t think there’s a ton of commentary on women feeling like they have a right to their space, though I do know the conversation from other books.

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          • “Society has taught these women that they don’t need to be smart if they’re sexy.” I’ve just remembered a girl in my freshman class in high school who put no effort into her schoolwork whatsoever, and when asked by a classmate, in front of the whole class, she said, “because I look like this.” (She was very thing and pretty.) I’ve been living in a casual state of horror ever since.

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            • LE. There’s a very funny (and very literary) book by Australian author Christina Stead about a New York family whose women make their fortunes by marrying and re-marrying in the 1940s. Letty Fox: Her Luck.

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              • You’ve got me intrigued, Bill, especially since I was just telling someone (Emily, I think!) that I’m so tired of most WWII-set novels because they focus solely on the trenches or some love story interrupted by war.

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            • Oh, no! Emily, your horror story made me smile because I can relate. (I’m perfectly aware that smiling when horrified is not normal, but I think I smiled because there’s someone out there with whom I can sympathize).

              Not sure if this makes you feel better, but have you noticed how weird a lot of older celebrities are starting to look? They keep doing plastic surgery and now the just look kind of “too beautiful” in a Frankenstein sort of way.

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              • Ah, smiling’s not so bad. I’ve been known to laugh on occasion when horrified, which can be hard to justify/explain in certain situations.

                I have noticed that! Really makes one rethink beauty standards. And vanity.

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  3. Enjoyed this post very much! I like that the issues the book raises are probably ones a lot of people can relate too. I started Roxane Gay’s Hunger last night and so far it has been good …

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    • I really loved Hunger and the way she’s just honest. She didn’t seem to be making a point, such as all fat people are those who have suffered physical trauma, but she makes those connections as they fit with her own life. Honestly, other than Ayiti, which was largely hit and miss for me, Hunger is the only book by Gay I’ve enjoyed. I wanted to light An Untamed State on fire.

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        • I find that some of her books, like Bad Feminist, are meandering essays that lack a central point to them. Then her novel was just. . .vulgar. As someone who doesn’t like swearing, I can’t imagine how you would respond to the book on any level!

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          • Well what you said is enough to make me skip it because you know I don’t like swearing and although I know it will sometimes show up in books, when it’s dripped in it, I have to just move on to another book. I did look up the one you wanted to set on fire I read your review and I was like that’s way too much. So this might just be the only one I read from her

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    • There are so many lines in The F Word like that. I worried that maybe this character was just making fun of dumb people (and she kind of is) but she’s also pointing out that many of the women she encounters aren’t very smart because they’ve been taught and believe that being pretty and sexy is all they need. Because the main character was fat, she worked hard at her education and then became very thin, so she’s straddling these two worlds.

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  4. Great review! “I like outside”—I snorted at that! It’s interesting that even if Olivia is thin now, her behaviors are shaped by her memories of being fat, like befriending the most attractive woman in the room to shore up social capital. This is only obliquely related, but I‘m reminded of a male acquaintance of mine who used to be fat in high school. Now, he has a pretty muscular physique, but he’s still perpetually shy around girls and hesitant to make eye contact, as there’s a leftover self-consciousness that makes him unable to look people in the eye. Society is far harsher on fat women than men but fat in general is still highly stigmatized. This sounds like something I’d want to read—thanks for putting it on my radar!

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    • You’re welcome, and thanks for sharing the story of your acquaintance. I think it reinforces my opinion that once a person is fat, they are always fat. It takes certain survival skills to exist as a fat person in the world, including constant thinking and planning ahead and running different scenarios in your mind, so Olivia tries to break from that and “erase” who she was. But she cant’ because she’s still smart, ambitious, and sort of mean, all traits she developed because she was fat.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s certainly very interesting—I’ve never quite imagined it that way before your review reframed what I knew of my acquaintance. It’s nice that the book didn’t give her a complete personality transformation along with her weight loss.

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