HelenKay: Take a successful young woman then steal her money, her fiancee, her career and her life, and what do you have? Heather Wells – former popstar, current Assistant Residence Hall Director and the heroine of Size 12 Is Not Fat, the first book in a new mystery series by Meg Cabot.
As a teen, Heather enjoyed the spotlight, a solid signing career and a rocker boyfriend Jordan Cartwright. Many years and many pounds later — enough pounds to go from a size 6 to a size 12 – Heather has run out of luck. Her manager mother absconded with her money. Her fiancee dumped her (but forgot to tell her – thank heavens she walked in and saw him with that other woman) for a new singing sensation. The old career is now behind her. Heather has moved on. Objectively she’s suffered a severe slip on the social ladder. In reality, she’s finally moving forward. She takes a job as an Assistant Residence Hall Director (never call it "dorm") and moves into a brownstone a few minutes away – and rent-free, which is a definite plus in New York City – with Jordan’s much cooler and hotter brother, Cooper.
Despite all the adversity, Heather appears fine until the young women in her residence hall (still not "dorm" as Heather frequently reminds us) start dying. The official explanation is elevator surfing – a game where students, usually hormonal boys, jump from the top of one moving elevator to another. A game too stupid to be real, but it is. Heather doesn’t believe the coroner’s conclusion. Girls don’t elevator surf, and these two girls were even less the type than others. When Heather starts investigating, the police ignore her, but she’s onto something because she becomes a target. So does anyone near her, including Jordan who comes back around to check on what he’s lost. Cooper, a private investigator, is skeptical but Heather lures him to her snooping in as well.
Size 12 Is Not Fat falls under the burgeoning subgenre of chick lit mystery. Told in first person, the story is cute and enjoyable. Heather’s voice is light and her personality very likable. She’s not perfect, not whiny and not all that motivated. She might be someone you knew in undergraduate school. The problem is, she’s supposed to be twenty-eight and, you’d think, somewhat worldly in light of her teen idol life. Her actions and speech tend to skew slightly younger than the alleged age of the heroine. Much of this can be ignored thanks to Heather’s charm and wit and a backstory that would suggested stunted maturity, but the problems are there.
Heather’s life of late has been pretty crappy, but her mood stays strangely upbeat. The don’t-worry-be-happy attitude works with the young feel of the book, but limits Heather’s growth and keeps her two-dimensional. She is not all that upset with her mother for taking her money or her ex for cheating on her. Her lack of frustration is at times, well, frustrating. Terrible circumstances change the direction of her life but otherwise don’t seem to touch her.
The depth issue continues with the secondary characters and Heather’s relationships with them. Her crush on Cooper is sweet, but a bit teenage. Cooper is an interesting mystery. Readers of romance may wish for a deeper connection between Cooper and Heather. However, one of the strengths of the book is in unrequited feel and hope for the future their relationship brings.
The remaining cast of characters from the philandering ex Jordan, to the alcoholic wife of the school’s president, to the president’s entitled rich son, all add to the mystery and play a role in Heather’s goal to be taken seriously. The unfolding of the whodunit occurs with quick and believable timing, guided by Heather’s sassy and funny narrative. The mix of death and fun is balanced and intriguing in a way to keep the reader flipping pages and wondering what comes next.
Wendy: If you look up prolific in the dictionary, the definition is fairly expected and unexciting: marked by abundant inventiveness or productivity. It might be simpler to narrow that down to two words: Meg Cabot. Since 1998 she (as Patricia Cabot, Jenny Carroll, and Meg Cabot) has published nearly forty original novels (that’s four – zero) spanning historical romance to chick lit to contemporary and paranormal young adult. And it doesn’t stop there; she has another seven releases scheduled for 2006. It’s a daunting number of pages to have written in that time and enough volume of work to question what kind of quality is going in to that fiction. Is it really possible to produce en mass, yet still produce well written novels? If Size 12 Is Not Fat is any indication, the answer is yes…if you’re Meg Cabot.
Size 12 Is Not Fat is the first installment in Cabot’s Heather Wells Mystery series. Cabot, no stranger to series fiction, lays ample foundation for the possibility of future stories without ever feeling as though this first book must be read simply as a primer to what will come. Rather, she crafts a heroine whose foot is poised for the first step of a long journey. Heather Wells is a character with a back story made for the movies…or VH1’s Behind the Music. A former teen pop princess, Heather was dropped by her label for committing the most unforgivable sin in tween world: growing up; her mother absconded with the riches Heather earned doing mall tours; and Heather dumped her fiancé, Jordan Cartwright—of boy band Easy Street fame—after she found pop rival Tania’s head in Jordan’s lap. Despite the lack of adolescent, formal education, or support system, Heather understands that—at twenty-eight—she doesn’t want her best years to be behind her and she needs begin building a life.
Heather takes a job at New York College’s Fischer Hall as an assistant residence hall director because one of the benefits—after a mandatory six months probation—is free tuition. But Heather’s goal of a degree—and one that fits her budget—is jeopardized when two residents of Fischer Hall meet their respective ends at the bottom of the dorm’s elevator shafts. Both deaths are dismissed as stupid college kids elevator surfing—riding on top of an elevator cab and jumping to the top of an adjacent ascending or descending cab. Heather isn’t convinced because if there is one thing she knows well, it’s the girls who used to buy her albums. Both students were girls and Heather knows that girls just don’t elevator surf.
Heather’s is a voice that is, perhaps, young for someone facing thirty, though given her upbringing, a suspended adolescence could be argued for. Her internal narrative is adjective heavy. Really. And, her speech is peppered with “okays” and “you-knows.” The sum of these parts is that Heather sounds like a real person instead of a well modulated character in a book. The casualness of the character may also fool readers into expecting a mystery without chops. This isn’t to be. As Heather—with help from landlord/pit bull/almost-brother-in-law Cooper Cartwright—searches for a killer whose method of death is an elevator shaft, Cabot doesn’t tip her hand to the killer’s identity but allows the story to unfold for the reader and Heather simultaneously.
Unlike other connected books or series, Size 12 Is Not Fat does not establish an overarching conflict or villain that is to be resolved somewhere down the line. This mystery is contained and concluded within this novel. That is not to say Heather’s story is contained or concluded. At novel’s end Heather is further into her journey but by no means at the end of her path.
Size 12 Is Not Fat succeeds and with that success, Cabot makes a compelling argument for popular fiction being well written. The nuts and bolts of Cabot’s craft are as solid as they could be and while the average reader may not know—or care even—about artesian tools such as voice, plot points, and crescendos, the average reader knows intuitively when something is amiss. With this Heather Wells Mystery, the only things amiss are the bodies piling up.
HelenKay’s Question: By any standard it’s fair to say that Meg Cabot has hit the big time. She is multi-published across multiple genres. Film studios turn her books into films with regularity. One published series can be found on television (for the moment, anyway). National newspapers and all variety of glossy magazines review her work. When you read a book by someone with this much press and this much buzz, what are your expectations and are they different from when you read something by Ms. Netta New Writer?
Wendy’s Answer: In this case, no. I had no expectations of Cabot. Usually, however, a lot of buzz, be it press or Internet chatter, creates an: “Oh, this is going to be really good,” expectation. Instead of a work standing on its own merit—be that good or bad—it’s judged against the anticipation of greatness. That’s a difficult yardstick for any art to measure up to, one that, arguably, sets the work up for failure.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: Not particularly weighty, but fun and entertaining.
Wendy’s Final Thought: Size 12 Is Not Fat is solid fiction.