Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: The Appetites of Girls by Pamela Moses

Women have such a complicated relationship with food and body image. We are bombarded from a young age with pictures of societal ideals that are unobtainable for many, if not most, women. Men see these ideals and look for a reflection of the same in the women to whom they are attracted. So it's no wonder that food has become a battleground. But it's not just about fat versus thin, curvy versus lithe. Tied into this, for many women, food and eating is a power struggle, one of the few ways in which they can control how the world views them. They can overeat and become invisible, trying to fill a gaping emotional hole, or they can pick daintily at their food, sometimes eschewing it altogether in an effort to exert control over the one thing in their lives that no one else can touch. What we eat and how we eat can be so emotionally freighted, as is the case in Pamela Moses' debut novel The Appetites of Girls.

Ruth, Setsu, Francesca, and Opal come together as college suit mates their freshman year. At first blush, they look as different as it's possible to be but underneath the veneer of varying life experiences and family relationships, they face many of the same issues and insecurities. Ruth grew up in New York, the children of immigrants striving for perfection. Her mother dominated her life, pushing food on her, choosing her path in life, and deriving her own self worth from Ruth's successes and failures. The constant overbearing competitiveness was hard on Ruth and only in stuffing herself full of food can she find some escape from the failures she feels so deeply. Francesca also grew up in New York but she grew up in wealth and comfort, expected to conform to her socialite mother's expectations of beauty and hospitality. Overeating is a way for her to buck these expectations and to mask the hurt she feels on the rare occasions she finds disappointment reflecting at her. Opal grew up with a single mother who followed men around the world, trading on her sexuality. She was, in many ways, more a pet to her mother than a child and her mother indulged her, thinking it adorable that her daughter wanted to grow up so quickly, not seeing the danger for a young girl looking for love and acknowledgement wherever she could find it. When this results in something horrific, Opal finds her only source of power in the stringent food and exercise rules she follows, bending her body to her own desires, not the desires of the men around her. Setsu, adopted as a young girl, is musically gifted but when her parents adopt an older brother who is also a talented musician, his petulant need to be the star and his enormous appetite force Setsu into the background where she hovers in near invisibility, wanting desperately only to please. She starts eating like a bird so that there is more for her brother to consume and, in his shadow, quits her violin despite real promise, and her parents allow and encourage her almost complete effacement. When these four damaged young women come together in college, their habits are already deeply ingrained. Even as they forge the connections to each other that will last long past college, they not only cannot break out of their destructive patterns, but they don't even share the very deepest of their hurts with each other. They do change over this seminal four years and try to forge new identities but without acknowledging the underlying issues that continue to haunt them: inability to accept and love themselves, to allow themselves to trust other people, and to take control of their lives and live them free of the expectations of others.  But without looking into their own souls and confronting their pain, they will not be able to change and grow into healthy and happy adults.

Ruth narrates her sections in the first person while the other three women's sections are third person. In addition to the rotating narration, the novel is divided into three separate sections, a pivotal moment in the shaping of the appetites of each of them in adolescence, their college years together, and then their life after college. Each of the women has very different relationships with her family and with men which results in different attitudes and reactions to food and hunger. Two of them are filling a hunger and two are denying it but each is suffering emotionally because of her actions. Moses has written a psychologically astute novel about what drives women to eat or to withhold food from themselves. She examines the subtle effect of conforming to men's ideals, how those ideals have become so ingrained in our culture as to be universal across the sexes, and the notion of sexuality in the relation to all of this. The issue is handled subtly but it is still very clear in the context of each woman's struggle and it can make the reader uncomfortably, gut-churningly self-aware. The novel is incredibly thought provoking and there's a despair and a darkness to the narration that adds to the difficulty of the subject matter.  But the ending is too easily resolved and it would have been more satisfying to see each of the characters claim their new resolutions once they have their revelations about the damage they have long been doing to themselves but instead we jump into the future by several years and are just told how they've changed. This minimizes the power of the narrative a bit but the overall feel and message of book is a good one, and the challenges and hurts the women all face are still prevalent today.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


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