13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL by Mona Awad (Penguin), 212 pages, $20 paper. Rating: NNNN
The key word in Mona Awad’s title for her debut short story collection is “looking.” In every story, Lizzie is watching herself in the mirror or assessing how other people are looking at her.
Most women are hypersensitive to the gaze, especially the male gaze catered to so ceaselessly in mass media. But Lizzie’s fat, so she has a particular reason to be concerned about her looks. In Awad’s skilfully crafted tales, the bitter teen living in Mississauga (or Misery Saga, as she calls it) slowly slims down to a still miserable married woman nibbling on lettuce.
Lizzie’s weight defines who she chooses as friends, her response to men who are attracted to her, her relationships with her mother, her co-workers – everything.
In the opener, When We Went Against The Universe, Lizzie and her also fat best friend, Mel, dither about whether they’ll give blow jobs to the men sitting at the next table. Here Awad sets the tone: this book will be all about fat, and there will be disturbing sexual content.
Just as you begin to wish she would change the subject, she kicks in with a short, exquisitely structured tale (The Von Furstenburg And I) about Lizzie’s efforts to get into a dress that she knows damn well won’t fit, and you appreciate Awad’s dead-on insight on the subject. Another, Caribbean Therapy, reveals Lizzie’s fascination with a very large woman who’s obviously very comfortable in her body.
Still, the best stories probe other complicated relationships. If That’s All There Is is a prickly tale in which Lizzie faces off with her boyfriend’s other lover. And in Beyond The Sea, Lizzie shows surprising compassion for a woman she’s been fighting with over access to gym equipment.
Awad’s definitely got a handle on the way women cope with body issues, but these last stories indicate a larger vision. Looking forward to seeing it unfold.
See my Q&A with Awad here.