Monday, January 7, 2008

Big Fat Manifesto

Big Fat Manifesto
Written by Susan Vaught
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Reviewed by Melissa

I was intrigued by the opening paragraph of Susan Vaught's new novel, Big Fat Manifesto. (I have to admit that I was also intrigued by the title.) Here it is:

I am so sick of reading books and articles about fat girls written by skinny women. Or worse yet, skinny guys. Tell me, what in the name of all that's creamy and chocolate do skinny guys know about being a fat girl?

Meet Jamie Caracterra. She's fat. She's also a journalist, a friend, and a senior, and she's trying to win the National Merit Scholarship so that she can afford to go to college, since her parents can't pay for it, and her grades and SAT scores aren't the greatest. In order to put together a portfolio, she begins a weekly column for the school newspaper (of which she is features editor) where she rants about being fat, the stereotypes and challenges facing fat people, and, eventually, her boyfriend's choice to have bariatric surgery. Writing the column becomes an outlet for Jamie to vent about just about everything.

I liked Jamie from the start; I admired her sass and her willingness to challenge stereotypes. I have to admit, though, that I was concerned about her. She was so caught up in being defined as "the fat girl" that I wondered what would happen when something came along to pull that definition out from under her. And that's exactly what happened when Jamie's boyfriend, Burke, decides to have bariatric surgery. At first, Jamie is unbelieving: why would he want to change the definition of himself, to be skinny? Then she is angry: what sort of teenager would succumb to society's definition of "good-looking" and put themselves through a dangerous surgery to achieve that? And then she is sad: she slowly comes to the realization that, after the surgery, she won't have much in common with Burke anymore.

I'm making this book seem more trite than it really is. Susan Vaught did an excellent job -- through Jamie's column -- of raising awareness of weight issues, of making "fat people" real. At one point, Jamie and her two friends, Freddie and NoNo, go into a hip clothing boutique. NoNo, who's a size two, gets fawned over. Freddie, who's not super skinny but not fat, gets treated nicely, if not attentively. Jamie, though, gets laughed at and ignored. The column she wrote after this experience included this a challenge to "normal" people about the way we all define beauty, and the way we all obsess about what size we are.

The thing that impressed me most about Vaught's writing was that it was challenging me while it was making me laugh. She addressed issues of class, weight, self-definition, love... and created an interesting heroine and a good plot along the way. I think the thing that impressed me most was that Jamie actually grew and changed in the face of her conflict. She didn't want to; she wanted to remain the "fat girl," but as her life changed around her, she found ways to change and adapt and grow. It's always admirable when a writer achieves that with a character.

And the ending was very satisfying. It wasn't all neatly wrapped up, things were left open ended. Yet, you couldn't help but feel hopeful for Jamie, and the person she was beginning to become. A good person, a real person, not just some "fat girl".

1 comment:

April Boland said...

Thanks for the review. I get such great book recommendations from this zine!