Friday, May 09, 2014

a review of Good in Bed

This review of Jennifer Weiner's first novel, Good in Bed (2001), was published a year after it first came out, on the now-defunct website Scarlet Letters. I wrote it as both a response to the recommendations I had gotten for it as a size-/fat-positive book and a review. I edited it down a bit here for reasons of ranting interminability, but it still (!) requires a bit of scrolling. 

Why Jennifer Weiner's Bestseller Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Sometimes a near miss can be more annoying than a wildly off-target shot. By which I mean: I was supposed to like this book. Good in Bed, by first-time novelist Jennifer Weiner, a bestseller in hardback and in its recent paperback release, has been recommended by fellow fat folk, and pushed by reviews that called it "a tool in the journey toward our own self-acceptance" (BBW) and "a must-read for any woman who struggles with body image" (Publisher's Weekly). But the book irritated me in the particular way that a book for which you are theoretically the demo can. I'm less pissed off about Good in Bed now than when I first read it, but as a not-great book it still annoys, especially because its primary attention-getting hook (which has nothing to do with the wasted title) lies unchallenged, even encouraged, by our imperfect understanding of issues of size.

According to reviewers, Good in Bed is about a woman "who learns how to love her plus-size self" (People)--her journey on the "road to self-confidence" (Lifetime). Candace "Cannie" Shapiro is a wisecracking Gen-X entertainment reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper with divorced parents--a disappearing emotional monster of a father and a late-in-life lesbian mother, a Princeton education, burning ambition, a driving sense of outsiderness and a former boyfriend who dumps her after she suggests they take a break. She finds this out at the beginning of the book when he starts writing about their relationship in "Moxie" magazine. By the middle of the book she has an unwanted pregnancy by her ex and a fruitful friendship with a Hollywood movie star. By the end, after a confrontation with her father and her daughter's (seriously soap opera) premature birth, she has true love with the doctor who runs the diet program at the University of Pennsylvania (more on that absurdity later) and a new sense of body acceptance, which she broadcasts in her own column in Moxie.

Sounds like a pretty size-positive story on the surface. After all, a summer book with a fat girl protagonist and a no-diet ending is still fairly revolutionary in some ways, maybe more significant in its context than in a more obscure place. It has been a hard thing to get a handle on the compromised, irritating attitude towards size I find in Good in Bed, regardless, but in the end the road Cannie travels doesn't look much like the world fat people actually live in.

Cannie, more or less lumped in her 2001 arrival into the chorus line of first-person single girls who occupied publishing lists in their genre in search of catchphrase--'Dump Lit,' 'Bridget Clones,' 'Brit Chick Lit,' Neurotic Female Fiction' (that would be super-feminist USA Today)--differs from Bridget Jones not so much in her body issues, which are as raging as those characters' for most of the book, but in her actual described size. She is at 5'10" a size 16.

Let me just say now, and loudly, and sincerely, that I understand all pain, including the pain of body issues, to be relative. I do not assume from looking at anybody, fat or thin, that I know what kinds of struggles they carry; hence the meaninglessness to me of the term "weight problem." But I am going to note, since Weiner does not, that size 16 is a somewhat average size for an American woman (the average American woman is around 145 pounds and a size 12, according to current statistics). Size 16 isn't tiny, but at 5'10" it's barely Lane Bryant territory. Cannie can buckle airplane seatbelts (tightly), even when pregnant. Once she mentions "inadequate armchairs," but she slides into booths without having to first gauge whether she'd fit. She is able to squeeze into the shirt of her tiny movie star friend (an oversized shirt, but still). She's big, but she ain't that big.

Which is fine, but it's part of the nearsightedness of this book that she never sees this for herself, nor Weiner for her readers. Which means that the media, ready as ever to call anything starting with size 12 as fat, don't get their thinking on that front challenged either: "A single woman with a vulnerable heart, a biting sense of humor and a pair of ever-widening thighs" ha-ha-ed Barnes & Noble; "Seriously overweight" (KUOW-FM); "She is big. Very big." (USA Today).

Quite often Cannie herself seems to have all the stunning self-awareness and attitude of a Cathy cartoon. I think this is what's supposed to make us like her ("one of the funniest full-figured heroines to come along in years" [Mode]), what we're supposed to identify with, what maybe gives the book some tacit approval from reviewers. Here are some of Cannie's responses to conversational gambits about her body:
"Do you know who you remind me of?"..."That guy on Jerry Springer who was so fat that the paramedics had to cut a hole in his house to get him out of it?"
"Think of this as a journey..." "Except that our journey led us to
the wonderful world of plus-size shopping and lonely nights."
"He should be in the circus..." "Yeah, well, a few more pounds and
I'll go, too. They still hire fat ladies, right?"
"You're stuck with a body that you think men don't want..." "It's a little more than a theory at this point." 

Cannie chants this stuff most of the way to the novel's rousing I Love My Body ending. It's interspersed with moments of status quo-challenging dialogue--you can see where Weiner is going--but Cannie's actions and thinking flip-flop strangely, and not merely in a way that would seem to demonstrate the ambivalence most women feel about their bodies.

Good in Bed is badly enough written at times that it's just not clear what Cannie feels--it's full of false endings, contradictory, tidily-won revelations that are doubled-back upon, and easy talk of change when it's not at all clear that change has happened. Even the opening gambit confuses: Cannie reads the column in which her ex-boyfriend discusses why he dumped her, how he loved her body--"She took no pleasure from the very things I loved, from her size, her amplitude, her luscious, zaftig heft"--and she goes and immediately enrolls in a diet program.

The moments of self-accepting epiphany in Good in Bd do not hang together in a convincing portrait of one person's development. At the end of the book, full of fury at the circumstances of her daughter's birth and bitterness about her father, Cannie unintentionally loses weight. Then she discovers that she doesn't care, and reverts to her old size, and publishes a broadside about accepting her body: "I will love myself because I am sturdy," "I may never be thin, but I will be happy," "There are more terrifying things than trying on bathing suits in front of three-way department-store mirrors." Accepting her body, for Cannie, also seems to involve packing her sexuality away--although it's partly attributed to the pregnancy and heartbreak her character inhabits for the last half of this book. (One more reason the title doesn't fit.)

As Cannie dithers, the burden of enlightened body attitudes is unconvincingly placed on the shoulders of everyone around her. Body acceptance comes from her mother, her friends, the columns her ex-boyfriend writes, her movie star friend, and, most often, her diet doctor, for Christ's sake. Weiner is trying to illustrate Cannie's journey towards acceptance in a Wizard of Oz fashion ("I was all right, all along"..."'You have everything you need,' my mother had told me'"), and in doing so she upholsters her life with good health, an active, gorgeous body (Cannie's descriptions of her body, next to the wisecracking, feel coyly luscious rather than conflicted), professional and financial success (including selling a screenplay in Hollywood that features a fat heroine), a full romantic/sexual history, and despite her father, an astonishingly generous support system of friends and family. Cannie mopes myopically through the richness, cracking self-deprecating jokes and reacting negatively, even dismissively, to the positive talk and support around her. It makes her a hard character to sympathize with, even as bad things happen to her. When the book is convincingly enough written that you are buying this world populated with hunky size-accepting diet doctors (not often), you are just exasperated with Cannie not seeing it. The journey she's on is unconvincing: all she does is flip around and note the luxury around her.

And okay: hunky, single, big girl-liking diet doctors. This bit of Irvingesque wish-fulfillment annoyed most of all. Dr. K., whom we are to believe Cannie is not noticing as a romantic prospect, is a really nice, but flat, reflective character. We find out little about him, except for an odd Freudian explanation for his specialization in weight-loss, and he does little plot-wise but woo and rescue Cannie over and over, including the one final time leading to the body-accepting denouement. This diet doctor tells Cannie she looks fine as she is, tells her diets don't work, tells her that given her heredity she might not have been meant to be thin. It's a lovely fantasy, a doctor who in addition--I'm not kidding--brings her food, sends her food, takes her out to eat, makes her dinner (honestly it seems kind of fucked-up; on one occasion he uses her list of "trigger" foods to figure out what to make) but it's symptomatic of how this book doesn't deal with the realities of living as a fat person. I agree that we are all all right, all along, regardless of our size. But the happiest size 34 is still going to have a harder time finding housing, jobs, partners, decent health care, educational opportunities and clothing than the unhappiest size 8, and diet doctors--quite specifically--keep that system working. (Reviewers seemed to protest much more loudly at the idea of a nice movie star than a size-accepting diet doctor: "This is such a sunny book that it regards film stars as sweet," marveled The New York Times.)

In fact, despite the ringing ending, Good in Bed takes a fairly traditional view of issues of size, period. It's not particularly sympathetic to other fat characters. There is a brief appearance by an inspiringly self-confident fat yoga teacher (she has more than a bit of an impersonal Glenda the Good Witch aura about her--Wizard of Oz indeed), but Cannie's nemesis, her "super-size" co-worker Gabby, about whom she even says "you'd think we would enjoy some solidarity because of our shared oppression, our common struggle to survive in a world that deems any woman above a size twelve grotesque and laughable," is written about in mean ways: she "waddles," has "thick fingers." Gabby is mean just because she's mean, but the reason they don't find any solidarity about size is Cannie's attitude. The other women in Cannie's diet class are written about as smart enough to rebel against yet more portion-control talk, but they aren't given much of a voice other than to ask for drugs and get nostalgic for donuts in a scene that reminded me of the movie Fatso. Dr. K tells us not everyone is meant to be thin, but Weiner makes it clear in her story-telling that thin people don't eat much and fat people do and that's how it happens.

Ultimately, few of the specifics of fat prejudice really seem to be the province of Good in Bed. Cannie's struggle with fatphobia, as written, is internal, and in the past. She talks about men looking at her "with disinterest and/or scorn because [she is] a Larger Woman," but this never actually happens (one guy asks her out as a friend, not a date, but the book even acknowledges it might have nothing to do with her size, that these feelings are coming from the "shrill, hysterical" part of herself). In one scene she confronts a proto-Courtney-Love character who calls her a "fat girl." And there is an anecdotal confrontation with a Hollywood agent's belief that there is one bankable fat actress. But that's it. Most of what actually happens in this book ignores the realities of fat life. This book is clearly fueled by the pain of being fat in a thin world--it's saturated with it--but that's it. It's more about "feeling fat" than actually being fat. (The word "fat" is not used in a neutral descriptive way in this book at all.) It shadow-boxes it. Whatever Cannie's size, if Good in Bed were a flat-out bubbly fantasy of fat girl entitlement, I'd be all over it. But it's not. Cannie finds validation in a world which is neither revolutionary nor realistic.

Books like Good in Bed, while illustrating, as well-funded pieces of mainstream media, currently accepted American attitudes towards fat folk, do also provide toeholds, Joan Riverses quips and all: maybe I should be rooting for it. I've thought about how I'd react to this book as a teenager if the idea of size acceptance was new to me -- which I was, and it was, at one point. Probably it would have been more helpful than quality time reading Scruples and being jealous of Billy Ikehorn, forced to glamorously lose weight in her Parisian home-stay.

And yet I don't know. The body-hating, body-starving world is everywhere in a thousand tricky permutations (and yo, hello--size 16 is only the beginning of the fat girl rainbow) and it is the strongest, most unapologetic, real words and characters that pulls me through it. Social barometer or not, I find Good in Bed lacking. (This book has also made me think of how Susie Bright has said [to paraphrase] she doesn't want to read one more coming out story. I'm getting tired of stories of Fat Girls Finding Themselves. Can't we already be there? Somewhere?)

There are lots of other reasons to dislike Good in Bed. The topicality of a "Saturday Night Live" episode, a brand name usage to rival Terry McMillan ("the diamonds were each about the size of a SunMaid raisin"), its overwritten First Novel qualities (did I mention Weiner is a Princeton-graduated, Philadelphia Inquirer entertainment reporter?), its breezy and confessional yet brittle prose, the tiresomely unkind stereotype of Cannie's mother's 12-stepping partner with her two-ton loom and rainbow stickers, or the off-putting sight of a favorite poet of mine quoted in it (Philip Larkin; nothing quite as disturbing as seeing an author you love quoted by an author you don't).

All that--well, other than wincing at the Larkin-quoting--that's my own uptight problem--is certainly the responsibility of poor writing, and better editing would have affected all the other stuff too. But even with its stirring message of size acceptance designed to twang our strings, I still would pass over Good in Bed for dieting, smoking, better-written Bridget Jones any day. This worries me, but it's true. Sometimes a miss, to quote Philip Larkin, is "as bad as a mile."

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