I read this novel in good faith, initially entranced by Shriver’s gleeful, idiomatic style and intrigued by her choosing to take on the important subject of obesity in America. What we have here, however, is novelistic nastiness carried to an incomprehensible degree. I won’t spoil the, ahem, ending, but I will say there is fiction, there is fiction within fiction, and then there there is slapping the reader in full face with a wet flounder. I did not like what she chose to do with the story, and I doubt most readers will.
Shriver is a prolific author, to say the least, and I believe she is bored with the craft, bored with her success, and on some level resentful of her readers. If you choose to read this book, please be aware that the author does not like you very much.
One word: solipsism. Another: omphaloskepsis. This isn’t a book about obesity, America, or even its own characters, but a revelation of one author’s twisted insides. The result is not an appetizing prospect.
Three stars for Shriver’s apparently effortless technical skills, even though employed in the service of a story that is not a story, but a finger thrust into the reader’s face.
Postscript - After 48 hours’ reflection:
I wrote this review right after I’d finished the book, when my sense of outrage was seething. The author takes the reader for a ride, then dumps him or her unceremoniously by the side of the road. In my review this perception, however, overshadows the whole of the novel, which is unfair.
Shriver has many gifts, chief among them an unerring ear for dialogue and the rhythms of our time. She is very perceptive about the role of food in American society, and specifically about the complex relationship between women and food. Any woman who has ever dieted, successfully or otherwise, will recognize herself in these pages. She also writes with warmth and affection about Iowa, which most people never do (I lived in Iowa City for three years, so I know the challenges). Her treatment of the NY jazz scene and the fatuous world of Hollywood has-beens is funny and realistic. She infuses her story with the seasons of the year, and does a nice job with that as well. The fictional TV show that bedevils this family is such a terrific parody, it reads like the real thing (much to ponder on there, but not now).
None of this, I regret to say, negates the bruises and trauma suffered by being shoved out of that car onto the unforgiving shoulder. The damage done by her self-conscious, look-at-me trickery remains as a bitter mental aftertaste. I won’t be reading any more of Shriver’s work, and I suppose that will remain the final word.