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This review is from: The Fat Girl (Paperback)
It's a shame in many ways that this book is not more widely published. I can remember stumbling across a battered copy of it in my school library, some time in the mid 1990s, and enjoying it then, although I read it at surface level then as a story about a fat girl who meets a boy - a popular, handsome boy - and her life changes for the better when through him she has the confidence to lose weight which results in her splitting up with him.
Returning to it at the age of not quite 30 I found the book disturbing and unsettling on so many levels and I have so many questions about it - I'd love to meet the author of this book for that reason. Jeff, our narrator, is handsome - he knows it and other people know it too. So why is he dating Ellen, the "fat girl" (Ellen weighs over two hundred pounds - fourteen stone-ish for non US readers which wouldn't make her particularly horrendous by today's standards, but anyway ...) It's a book about power, and Jeff loves not Ellen (Wanda, Jeff's sister says, "Ellen (sic) has no personality ... she just sits and looks at you" but the power he holds over her. Jeff controls what Ellen wears, her makeup, her perfume, her friends, and to begin with Ellen is compliant and agreeable. At first, it's possible to see that even though Jeff comes across as a little overbearing his intentions are basically good and even though Ellen isn't keen on the clothes he chooses, the point is she's showing an interest in clothes for the first time in a long time. What is frightening is how quickly and how convincingly the author portrays Jeff moving into territory that isn't just a bit overbearing but downright abusive and bullying; refusing to speak to Ellen on her prom night after she wears a dress he did not choose; trying to force Ellen to attend the same college as him so they can live together; instructing her on who she can see and openly putting her down by putting doubts into her mind about who likes her and who doesn't. It's so easy to see how ten years down the line, had the book not ended by Ellen breaking up with Jeff, we could easily have had a cowed and bullied Ellen playing the role of the abused and oppressed wife as Jeff controls her finances and life in the same way he controls her wardrobe and social life.
The book's real skill comes from the fact that we don't lose sympathy for Jeff. He is a victim too, every bit as much as Ellen, and we come to understand from his background why he feels the need to control Ellen - it comes from a fear, a deep rooted insecurity from living with a neurotic mother who is probably bordering on being emotionally abusive herself - yet Jeff loves her. It's impossible to dislike Jeff: he remains polite, amiable and kind to the women in his life - mother, sister and girlfriends, and he treats both Ellen and his previous girlfriend Norma with a gentle respect even as his behaviour becomes more and more dominant and bossy. And we can't quite forget that Jeff is the one who gave Ellen the confidence to stand up for herself in the first place - even though this backfires spectacularly on Jeff!
It's a real gem of a book - it's not about a "fat girl" but a very interesting and fascinating look at abusive relationships, where they start and how they start and I can't reccommend it strongly enough.