Wendy: Liza Palmer’s debut novel, Conversations with the Fat Girl, is plus-sized chicklit that takes a startlingly raw look at vulnerability and features a heroine readers won’t aspire to be, but just might see themselves in.
Maggie Thompson’s life is crumbling and caving in around her. So, it’s only natural that her landlady positions a bulldozer in front of Maggie’s house and gives her forty-eight hours to move; that her best friend, Olivia, once morbidly obese and now dwindled to the mythical size two—with the help of gastric bypass surgery—is shedding her old life, Maggie included, with the pounds; that Olivia’s fantasy wedding, to the doctor of her dreams is coming up, and Maggie sees it as one last gasp for a friendship she’s determined to salvage; that her nowhere coffee shop job begins to chafe and her crush, Domenic, suddenly acknowledges that she is alive. What’s a girl, who’s sleepwalked through as much of her life as she could, to do? Wake up and take some risks.
Above all the trials and tribulations of Maggie’s life, beyond the events that could belong to anyone and most, in fact, are familiar to chicklit heroines, Conversations with the Fat Girl, looks deep into the fractured psyche of a woman mortified by her own body. Maggie’s incessant self obsession could be called narcissistic if she viewed herself with anything but loathing. Palmer never dulls Maggie’s pain, never steps backs from what could be too revealing, never lessens, or invalidates Maggie’s feelings. All the while, Palmer forces the reader along side Maggie and dares one not to flinch.
Palmer does not labor over descriptive details, but her voice is rich, witty and enveloping. At times she aims such an unblinking stare at Maggie’s deepest fears and insecurities that the urge to cringe and look away is overwhelming. The urge to cheer Maggie on, however, is greater. Maggie is flawed in the simplest and most believable way: she’s afraid — afraid to move forward, afraid to move back, afraid to risk, afraid of herself. Her lack off confidence might begin with her body issues, but it doesn’t stop there. As Palmer shows Maggie in the first third of the book, walking through life with her head down waiting to be kicked, she’s a difficult character to relate to. The desire to shake Maggie and yell at her to grow a spine is overwhelming, as person after person rears back to land a well placed kick. Fortunately, after much worrying about back fat and her “area” (this area seems to begin under her boobs and extend to just below her hips), Maggie does begin to fight back. With the tiniest of baby steps she advances into the world, fearful of every encounter, radiating a vulnerability that is palpable. More often than not she immediately gives up the ground she fought so hard to win. It’s this raw vulnerability, laid bare for all to see, that is the book’s true achievement.
Conversations with the Fat Girl is unquestionably Maggie’s story. She is the fat girl speaking, her voice is the most effective. Palmer surrounds Maggie predominately with women: mother, sister, nieces, best friend Olivia, arch nemesis Gwen, the overly motherly friend Peregrine (yes, the wanderer), evil bulldozing landlady Faye, even the contact for her dream internship at The Getty, Beverly Urban. With the exception of Domenic and Maggie’s coffee shop boss, Cole, men have little impact on Maggie’s life. While Palmer never fails to clearly draw and sharply define her secondary characters, their motivation isn’t as apparent. Gwen, Olivia’s other closest friend, hates Maggie with a viciousness that is hard to fathom because the impetus for it is never defined. Likewise, the reader is left to wonder what Domenic’s great insight into Maggie is.
Maggie has no greater weakness than her emerging feelings for Domenic. He represents the greatest risk, a possible fantasy come true in a life of daydreams. Domenic’s steps towards Maggie are equally slow and halting. But make them he does, quietly proving to Maggie that rewards come with risk taking, not just the failure and loneliness she is familiar with.
Maggie’s turning points, life lessons and epiphanies are handled with the subtly of a sledgehammer, or a bulldozer at her front door, as the case may be. Too often, Palmer forgoes nuance for the overly obvious, as when Maggie takes her dog, Solo (a name lacking subtext if ever there was one), to the trainer, only to discover that Solo’s big problem in life is fear. Suddenly Maggie’s eyes are opened and self realization dawns. Perhaps had Maggie read her pet’s body language to reach this point by herself, instead of the trainer drawing it out in the plainest language possible, “[S]he doesn’t trust me not to betray her,” the effectiveness would not have been lost.
Conversations with the Fat Girl compels with its engaging—and eventually likable—heroine. Maggie’s journey is one not only of self discovery, but also self acceptance. Palmer mixes humor with the death of friendship, balances fear with hope, and leaves Maggie at the start of a new path instead of at the end of an old one.
HelenKay: Maggie’s life is about insecurity and not fitting in. She’s smart and funny, but fails to recognize her potential or talents. To a great extent, Confessions With The Fat Girl is about being an overweight twenty-something woman in a thin, pretty world. But, it is also about self-acceptance and taking risks.
Maggie has a supportive family, a lifelong friend, a solid education…and a job at a coffee shop. Her landlord has advised she needs to move out. Rather than write a notice, the landlord puts a bulldozer on Maggie’s front lawn. Maggie has one week to find a place to live and help plan her best friend’s wedding shower, all while trying to figure out her feelings for co-worker and dishwasher, Domenic. This is the set-up for Confessions With The Fat Girl, a book about being fat and so much more.
Thanks to some helpful meddling from her sister Katie, Maggie has an opportunity for an exciting internship in her field but is afraid to make the call to set up the interview. This sums up all aspects of her life – job, home, love life and friendship. She settles for less out of a fear of not being able to attain more. Her life has been shaped by her weight and corresponding feelings of inadequacy. People around her see a smart, charming woman. She sees a fat girl and, as a result, spends her life trying to blend into the wallpaper.
The blending started early and with the help of her then best friend, Olivia. Their social experiences matched and they connected with each other to the exclusion of others. One day, Olivia decided to change, got gastric bypass surgery and became one of the thin girls. With her new body and new attitude, she landed a handsome (and thoroughly uninteresting) fiancee. As Olivia’s wedding approaches and her behavior disintegrates, Maggie does some changing of her own. The resulting differences between the women – differences having almost nothing to do with weight – become clear to reader and Maggie.
The book unfolds through a series of flashbacks and comparative present-time experiences. Maggie narrates and her voice is fresh and witty, sometimes biting, but always real. She is flawed but much less so than she believes. Her growth throughout the book, from believing she doesn’t deserve better to reaching out for it, is well done.
The downside of this book, the potential turn off, is in the beginning of Maggie’s journey. The first 100 pages of the book, while filled with snappy dialog and clever banter, are so mired in Maggie’s self-doubt and weight obsession that it is hard to connect with her. Yes, the body image issues are real, maybe even universal. The problem is that Palmer makes Maggie likable so Maggie’s inability to invest in her life or recognize her self-worth becomes inexplicable and, at times, annoying. At this point, Maggie’s conversations and inner turmoil take on a monotonous feel. There is a general sense of "get over it" that puts an unwanted barrier between Maggie and the reader.
But, stick with the book and with Maggie. The last two-thirds of this book are worth the cover price and the sometimes stilted pages that come before.
As Maggie’s attraction to Domenic grows and the spotlight shifts slightly from Maggie’s weight issues to her life in general, the book takes off. The pacing picks up speed, the tone changes, the narration becomes even funnier and the book moves to a different level. While Confessions With The Fat Girl seems to operate on the theory that thin women are nasty, or at the least suspect, its overriding message is one of hope and female power. It works on the theory that you have to love yourself before others can love you and delivers that bedrock principle in a package that doesn’t preach or condescend.
Confessions With The Fat Girl is a warm and genuine chick lit offering. Maggie’s perspective is true and heartwarming and a worthwhile read. Her "fat girl" experience rings true and Palmer’s refusal to flinch or take the easy way out for Maggie is refreshing.
HelenKay’s Response to Wendy: There is an underlying theme in this book that thin people are shallow and mean. For example, Olivia is the perfect friend until she has her surgery, gets a size-2 perspective and becomes one of "those" people – people who look down on the non-size 2s of the world. Olivia’s friends, Gwen in particular, are even worse. Did you notice the dichotomy and, if so, did this unspoken theory lessen your enjoyment of Maggie and the believability of the story?
Wendy’s Response to HelenKay: Was Olivia the perfect friend? Or, before surgery, was Maggie all she had, the best she could do? When the friendship breaks forever at the Bellagio, Olivia tells Maggie how she wanted to be just like her: full of confidence. But, even Maggie’s insecurities have issues; the only thing Maggie is confident of is that she is fat in a skinny world. A best friend should know better.
But, no, Maggie’s incessant condemnation of the thin and thin-people-are-evil theme didn’t bother because I hoped Maggie would realize she was just as judgmental and superficial as those she believed cast her out. However, in all her epiphanies, this was not one of them, and that was a disappointment.
Wendy’s Final Thought: Conversations with the Fat Girl is bitingly honest yet balanced with humor. Palmer’s voice is fresh with promise and the hope of even better work to come. Recommended.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: A poignant read that manages to be both funny and painful. Recommended.