One to Watch by debut author Kate Stayman-London is a brand-new fat positive novel about Bea. The opening chapter of One to Watch is wonderful. Typically, books about fat women start with a poor fat woman going on a date during which some guy or friend humiliates her, so she writes a revenge post on a blog and slowly gains a fat-positive following. That’s where she gets her confidence. In Bea’s case, it’s during her study abroad in Paris at a street market where she finds her confidence. A French woman selling luxurious capes convinces Bea she has the perfect find for this shy American. But at 200 Euros Bea can’t afford the cape. In this moment, the seller sees a fat young woman who needs a reason to stand out and shine, so she gifts Bea the cape with the promise that Bea will tell everyone where she got it. What a lovely start to the book, something different and positive, and a nice interaction between two women.
Cut to years later and Bea is a successful fashion blogger who makes a living in L.A. with advertising and endorsements on her blog. She even has an agent. One night, her friend Ray, the man she’s loved/been friends with for a decade, says he’s coming back to L.A. for an event asks Bea if he can crash at her place. His fiancee won’t mind since Ray and Bea are friends. They end up sleeping together, but Ray leaves before Bea wakes and won’t respond to her for months. The author does a convincing job with this relationship; it’s founded in friendship and common interests, and it makes sense that Ray and Bea would be into each other. Yet, it’s obvious he doesn’t want to date a fat woman, even if he’s in love with her. The betrayal Bea feels doesn’t stem from a typical romance, but a relationship developed over ten years. She sounds pathetic for loving him and doesn’t get the benefit of saying “ex-boyfriend,” but she’s still left with deep, realistic (and unfortunately relatable) heartbreak. Stayman-London looks at the harsh side of romance experienced by fat people, the hidden side that is no less emotional. It’s wonderfully done.
It’s been months but Bea is deeply depressed, so she indulges in some classic comfort TV: Main Squeeze (basically, The Bachelor or The Bachelorette). On the final episode, the main squeeze chooses one person and gets engaged. But why is everyone on that show Hollywood hot? Bea rails against the Main Squeeze on social media, which garners enough attention that the show’s producer asks Bea personally to be the next star of Main Squeeze. Is America ready for a fat bachelorette? Will twenty-five strange men vie for her affection, or humiliate her on national TV? Bea is thirty and has never said “I love you” to anyone in a romantic fashion. She’s not inexperienced in sex, heartbreak, or dating but she’s had to navigate relationships in a fat body in cruel, appearance-driven America. Will Bea play along for ratings and refuse to make herself vulnerable to love, though she would become an example to millions of fat women, or will she actually fall in love?
The first show taping of Main Squeeze is rough for Bea. The twenty-five men have not been informed that Bea is fat. She’s asked for a diverse group of bachelors who match her interests. While they are different ethnicities and races, all but one is model-fit. Bea thinks the one fat man is a joke, as if of course she has to end up with him, because why would a ripped guy date a fat woman? The introduction to the bachelors is awkward, partially scripted, and a total disappointment for Bea. But she has to make it work; she signed a contract.
Once Bea starts filming dates for Main Squeeze, she has to teach the producer what it means to love and date in a fat body. Thankfully, the crew hired Alison, a fat wardrobe manager, and she dresses Bea in stunning, comfortable outfits. But otherwise, Bea has to remind the crew why her second show on a yacht in a bikini feels more like a jab than a date: “If you want the audience to buy what we’re selling, you have to stop assuming that I’m going to experience these dates the way you would. I don’t live in your body.” Fat women, of course, wear bikinis, but knowing she is being watched by millions of judgmental people and being the first-ever fat bachelorette puts her in a sensitive situation. Stayman-London earlier had noted that when Bea is invited to cafes or clubs, the seating often excludes her due to her size. I adored the attention to the way Bea navigates a physical space and applaud the author for not letting us forget what her heroine looks like and how people react to her.
I don’t watch these dating kinds of shows anymore (I used to watch Rock of Love (why?!?!?!?!?)) but I understand how people get wrapped up in them and how the emotions on the show may be genuine. It’s insane to think there is one person for us, and if there are several people who care about us, whom do we pick? For Bea, it’s got to be the person who fits her future. Because she’s attracted to a few contestants who genuinely seem to like her, each date feels like she’s with the “right person.” But the way Stayman-London makes us think beyond love and focus on reality was a cool bi-product of One to Watch. If Bea likes Wyatt, is she willing to live on a farm? If she falls for Sam, is she willing to date a guy with no job who still lives with his wealthy family? Does the highly erotic French chef want a whole storybook romance, or just one sultry chapter? The author both destroys the notion that there’s one person for us and establishes that there may be one most-realistic person for us.
It’s 2020, and what would a book be if it didn’t capture the way Americans live? We Tweet, text, email, blog — a whole array of media that Stayman-London captures. While some people find the inclusion of various social platforms trendy in fiction, I say if the author does it right, she’s matched the form with the content and the time period. For instance, a fan group who watches Main Squeeze every season and creates brackets to guess who’s going to be chosen has a delightful text thread that they use while watching the show, sharing their emotions and predictions for who gets chosen. Here’s an example:
Beth.Malone: He’s the hot French chef we need in these dark times and I stand by him
One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London is a delightful, deserving novel that has the wit I would expect from a writer whose background is screenwriter and political strategist. I can only hope she chooses to write more novels because I’m buying what she’s selling.