Billed as the insightful story of a spunky columnist who crusades for acceptance of fatness and obesity in America, Fat Chance puts the spotlight on the insecurities of any woman who has every looked in a mirror and hated what she saw (and used Sara Lee as therapy). The debut novel of nutritionist Deborah Blumenthal it falls short of the mark owing to a slow start, an unlikable protagonist, and a choppy writing style that was hard to follow. Although it does pick up in the middle of the story, so much of the book is spent offering weight loss advice/statistics while paying lip service to the notion that it’s okay to be obese as long as you love yourself, that the actual story gets lost somewhere along the way.
Overweight journalist Maggie O’Leary became screamingly popular after the genesis of her unconventional column, Fat Chance. Loved by her readers for presenting a happy façade despite her own weight problems, she’s a lady with issues of her own. Though she loves her food and is a gourmet cook, it becomes apparent that she has a huge chip on her shoulder, is obsessed herself with weight, and her appearance of self-acceptance doesn’t fool anyone except her naïve readers. The sniping comments targeted at women thinner than she, and her pretty negative inner dialogue make her a hard person to like, and belie the blurb on the book’s cover that present her as believing of her own motto that fat is okay.
Told in first person narrative, the writing style is jumpy and hard to follow. Maggie’s thoughts bounce from subject to subject, most of which center around her obsession with all things weight related, and her columns – which mostly either serve as justifications for fatness, or not so subtle weight-loss tips. It also becomes clear that despite her fame, she remains very insecure about her own appearance; readers are treated to the classic recounting of her torturous teen years when no boy would look at her. Maggie’s eating grew more out of control as her emotional issues took center stage.
When she gets an offer from hunky Hollywood actor Mike Taylor to serve as a consultant so he can get into the mindset of women with weight issues, she not only ditches her pro-fat ethos, she goes so far as to use the eight weeks before she is due in LA as a chance for a total body makeover, resorting to an eating regime and exercise plan that would make Stalin cringe. She overspends on a new wardrobe and more beauty treatments than you can shake a stick at, in the hopes that Mike Taylor will suddenly notice her as a woman and sweep her off her feet. This, she tells herself, is the best incentive she will ever have to get the body she wants and if she can’t do it now, she never will. Her publisher and colleagues are horrified by the new Maggie as she sheds a vast amount of weight and seems to become a different person. Especially horrified is her long time dining-buddy and co-worker Tex, a man who appreciates a woman who loves to eat, and who is Maggie’s best friend alongside her ever loyal assistant, Tamara, who has weight issues of her own. When she jets off to LA, her friends are further flabbergasted, when the formerly rooted columnist gets a bad case of star-fever, becoming besotted by the gorgeous Mike. For a time, she loses her sense of herself and we witness Maggie’s shaky attempts to discover who she really is, and to come to terms with both her food addiction and her negative body image.
There’s nothing wrong with the author’s anti-diet, pro-healthy lifestyle view of eating which is all the rage right now among a large group of those who study such things. My problem with the book is that it spends a disproportionately large amount of time offering weight loss advice and statistics, none of which were particularly interesting. Had I wanted yet another diet book I wouldn’t be in the bookstore’s fiction aisle, though given how ridiculous some of those nonsensical books are, maybe I should be! Blumenthal’s book ends with a diet and exercise plan that may well contain sensible advice about weight loss, but I repeat: I don’t buy a novel for weight-loss advice and platitudes about body image!
The fact is, Fat Chance sells itself as featuring a woman who is fine with her own excess weight and in this it definitely is misrepresented – it’s more about a woman who goes on a journey of inner discovery to become okay with herself. Also, as it focuses on fat alone, it not only takes a low pop at women who are thin yet have body image issues as well; at times I wanted to slap the author for her constant harping that thin equals miserable, that the thin are no healthier than the fat, and that thin people who don’t exercise risk death.
It’s certainly not ‘wrong’ to be fat – being fat is perfectly fine, and people who are overweight (or in fact, different in any way) should never be a target for “haters.” But something is serious wrong when a person is weight obsessed to the point that it affects not only happiness but an entire world view. It also doesn’t make a protagonist very likable when you are trapped inside her head and she is constantly trying to justify her size to herself or whining about her miserable life.
Bizarrely, I found Maggie much more likable when she shed the pounds. She became human because she was able to discuss her weaknesses without the defensiveness. Watching her practice walking in killer heels and seeing her idiotic crush on Mike Taylor made her much more accessible. Also, as she no longer had the shield of “fat-crusader” to hide behind, she actually dealt with the real issues behind the overeating, and her true personality came out of hiding. Along the way, she learned what was really important to her, and her life lessons were presented in a believable manner.
All in all, although the book grew more enjoyable in the latter half, I can’t say it improved enough for me to recommend it. Most women have some sort of body image issues – in that way there is a certain amount of Maggie O’Leary in all of us. However, I hope that next time Blumenthal concentrates on the story rather than the advice… either that or go the whole hog and write the darn diet book (oops, I’m supposed to call it “healthy lifestyle,” not diet) and leave us fiction lovers alone.