Too Big to Miss by Sue Ann Jaffarian

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

22 comments

  1. I wonder, are the people who write these stories “fat”? I’m just curious if it’s someone writing from an aspect that they know nothing about. Like, if I was to write a story about a deaf character and the way I wrote them, actual deaf people were like, “That is not at ALL what it’s like” sort of thing. I’m not fat but I try never to judge someone else’s body but this may also stem for being judged by friends constantly about how skinny and flat chested I was. But you’re also right in the fact that if you hate your own body, you may feel free to hate everyone else’s too.

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    • I Googled the author, and she is a fat woman who is older, so the character Odelia may even be based on feelings Jaffarian herself has experienced. Before we had social media, people were fighting for the right to be treated with dignity regardless of their body size, but they still lived through the hey day of crash diets, especially the fat-free era. Oof.

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        • They’re so shit for your metabolism. Like, truly, and you can tell him there’s mountains of evidence to back that up. Oddly, Michelle Obama’s plate graphic helped me think about what to eat. I’ll eat carbs, but I don’t want to have it with a side of carbs, for example. On the other hand, your dad is cute as hell (I’m still not over holding pinkies) and could just live as he is, too!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Carbs with carbs is so tasty but so bad, you’re right. D:
            There are a few reasons my dad wants to lose weight, a big one being his knees. He has pretty bad knees (he had surgery on one at the beginning of the pandemic) and it would take some of the pressure off of them. I think largely though, it’s about confidence. He is a single guy and has been for a long time. Which is a shame, because he’s a great guy.

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  2. You have my constant admiration for the way you analyze the prejudiced gaze – both the gazer and the gazed on – and how that is playing out in the work you are reviewing. By making Fat Lit a thing and then working through the ways it is done well, or done badly you are helping us all to see prejudice at work, in all its many manifestations, and especially whether the author is battling prejudice or (maybe unknowingly) contributing to it.

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    • The system of hating fat people is so woven into the fabric of our lives that we’re taught to hate ourselves and applauded when we do. Even if you look at fat comedians, most are known for making fat jokes about themselves. If they humiliate themselves first, then they can get “ahead” of the problem their body presents and let everyone know they realize they should hate themselves. It’s so awful.

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      • I have been thinking recently about the new generation of female comedians in the UK and why a lot of them feel very refreshing, e.g. Desiree Burch, and I think that women comedians are starting to move away from making fun of their own bodies. (I mean, technically Desiree Burch is one of yours, but she’s based in the UK now and she’s fantastic, so I hope she stays). She was recently on Taskmaster along with a thin woman and a woman of average size, and there were no jokes about food or bodies or anything like that – not by her, not by anyone else – and it was just great. She was so funny. I think things would have been different ten or maybe even five years ago, so I hope it’s improving, and people don’t seem to feel the need to apologise quite as much.

        (That said, I have been known to start GP appointments by saying “I know I shouldn’t be fat, I’ve come about my injured ankle” etc just to get it out of the way – so I am not the change I want to see in the world).

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        • Oh, Lou! Your comment to the doctor is actually quite refreshing. You get ahead of the thing you know they’re going to say. If I were you, I’d just take that photo of my granny on the bike during rationing. Then I’d say, “These are my genes! Get over it!”

          In the U.S. Nicole Byer is a comedian who doesn’t make fun of her fat body unless it’s important to the context of the story, like using a public bathroom stall, and those are so slender.

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  3. Ugh, I cringe when a character has a damaging inner monologue about themselves. I mean, it’s realistic in the sense that we’re conditioned to think negatively about being fat, but still. It would have been nice for the character to have a sense of neutrality about her body. Although you’re right, body neutrality wasn’t a big thing in 2006.

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    • Whenever I write a review like this I have to go through and delete comments from new users about ob*sity and exercise, etc. but that’s missing the point. Imagine replacing “fat” with anything else that society sees as a “problem,” whether that’s a disability, an immigrant, a person who is not white, and LGBTQ person — any situation in which a person with X identity also hates people with X identity.

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  4. Too bad this falls short. I do think there is a pressure to acknowledge your own bodily faults (such as they may be perceived) before someone else might. Women in particular do this. “I hate my thighs” or “My nose is too big”. It’s like a defence mechanism we’ve absorbed but I don’t know precisely why. It’s a frustrating trait in real life so I can imagine that it would be annoying in a book too.

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  5. Gosh at first I was like ‘oh 2006 isn’t that long ago’ but then I remember it’s 2022 so that was actually 16 years ago! Not that attitudes have changed hugely since that time, but I wonder if the author re-wrote the series now, if she would have used less internalized hate like that? We will never know of course, but I can see why that’s jarring for sure.

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    • Social media helps people get out information faster, and that includes things like medical inequality causing health issues for fat people. There are studies about how fat people who had covid were given less aggressive treatment to help them survive. So then you see those numbers about fat people being at risk for death, but it’s not the whole picture. Also, preventative care is a great way to live a long time, but because doctors can be so horrible to fat patients, most won’t go until they’re incredibly sick. I do think Jaffarian would have written a different book today. Although I don’t like reading YA, I love that so many have fat characters now and hope that changes the internalized hatred we see from older people.

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