Sue Ann Jaffarian’s (she/her) mystery novel Too Big to Miss opens with Odelia, a fat woman in her early forties headed to the grocery store. She pauses as she contemplates a billboard that reads “SIZE DOES MATTER!” Feeling defeated after a bad first date at which the guy dismisses her due to her size, Odelia plans to fix her feelings with food. There, she runs into one of her best friends, who discourages Odelia from ignoring her emotions in favor of eating. But then they receive a phone call informing them that their friend Sophie has died by suicide. How is that possible, they wonder? Sophie was a cheerleader of fat women, someone who took people under her wings and supported them, helped them find jobs and housing. As executor of Sophie’s will, Odelia is able to look for clues in her friend’s home.
I wouldn’t call Too Big to Miss a cozy mystery; there are no baking puns nor ho-ho-ho-liday murders. Although it’s not explicit, there are sex scenes. One passage describes the blood spilled — things like this that I don’t associate with “cozy.” On the other hand, Jaffarian has not written a real thinker, either. You’d read about Odelia on the bus or beach.
Aspects to appreciate: Odelia never goes where she doesn’t belong. She’s not breaking into someone’s office to steal their files nor headed to an abandoned factory at night. Instead, she hears what folks say and then talks to people while they are at work or in the daylight at their homes. I never paused to think, “No, you idiot!”
I also enjoyed that Jaffarian argues wisely that we may not know the people we love. Odelia knew Sophie for only three years, but because Sophie was such an impactful friend, Odelia was under the impression she knew everything about the recently deceased. Instead, Jaffarian lets readers take a peek into the world of sex work (again, not explicit), past secrets, and manipulated entanglements with other individuals. Odelia is repeatedly surprised and doesn’t sound very open about sex work or the people who watch it.
The downside is just how judgmental Odelia can be. Her main partner in the search for why Sophie would choose suicide is Greg, a man in a wheelchair who watched Sophie on her adult site. He has no shame about being a paying customer, and he actually knows more about Sophie than Odelia does. In fact, he has to remind Odelia that the web cam sex work is work. There are several comments in Odelia’s narration about Greg’s wheelchair, such as “I have never been attracted to a man in a wheelchair before, and wasn’t sure how I felt about it deep down inside.” And when she does come around to admit he’s quite attractive, she thinks, “Looking at him like this, it was difficult to remember that he was paralyzed from the waist down.” Odelia’s comments about Greg’s body always left a sour taste in my mouth, especially given the scenes in which she’s mad because someone has judged her for being fat.
Honestly, if you hate your own body, it’s impossible for you to respect other people’s. And Odelia hates her body. She refers to it as “doughy” and “bulk” (a term I cannot stand unless I’m shopping at Costco), a “beached whale” and “huge.” It’s exhausting. Her comments are exhausting. I’m not sure if fat people feel like they have to acknowledge verbally that they’re fat to demonstrate to society that they know they’re fat. Say it before someone else can, that sort of thing. But these are things Odelia is thinking, which means she’s internalized cruelty — and dishes it back out to nice folks like Greg.
While I was excited that Jaffarian wrote a whole series around Odelia, I can’t listen to this lady bash on people for size and ability anymore. I acknowledge that Too Big to Miss was published in 2006 before big social media campaigns for fat and disability rights but . . . to just leave those comments out would have been so easy.
CW: ableism, fatphobia, suicide