When I saw Danielle Steel's Big Girl, with its illustration of a woman lifting a spoonful of something fattening to her lips, I gave an inward sigh at the prospect of yet another patronizing fat-protagonist-makes-good tale. Upon reading, I was...surprised.
I'll confess to having swathed this book in a brown paper cover, school-style. This is both because I had every intention of returning it, unmarred, to the bookstore, and because, in the age of "Cover Spy," every subway read is a chance for humiliation. I also, initially, didn't want anyone thinking I endorsed any facile, Jemima J-style messages. I was a Danielle Steel virgin. I knew, of course, that she was a mega-bestselling author whose gold-embossed covers were a fixture of the "paperback bestsellers" rack and a perennial font of lurid miniseries inspiration. I knew, too, that the author had had a life that - I'll just say it - was worthy of one of her novels: a career as a beautiful socialite; multiple marriages to cons and rakes and millionaires; homes all over the world; nine children; suicides and tragedy.
So, I was surprised that Big Girl was so...dull. I mean, I kept reading, but mostly because I expected stuff to start happening at any point. It never did. But, for what it's worth, here's what I read: Victoria is the daughter of two beautiful two-dimensional brunette people who value money, prestige and being attractive. In contrast, she is big-boned and blond and named after Queen Victoria, to whom her father never tires of comparing her. Her folks are cruel and emotionally withholding and give all their attention to Victoria's beautiful little sister, Grace. As a result, Victoria becomes a comfort-eater with low self-esteem. She is, we're told repeatedly, "smart," albeit a sad sack with few friends and almost no love life. Then she goes to Northwestern. Then she moves to New York and becomes an English teacher. Her parents belittle and mock her throughout. Victoria suffers a series of indignities (first love turns out to be gay; second love is two-timing her), acquires a supportive two-dimensional gay roommate, tries a lot of diets and gains the weight back, and finally ends up with a Perfect Man who, in addition to being incredibly handsome and having no discernible personality, loves her for who she is and, with the help of a psychiatrist (named, oddly, "Dr. Watson" whose therapeutic approach seems approximately as complex as Robin Thicke's), helps Victoria learn to accept and love herself. Because she is, as the author repeatedly has to tell us, a really nice, smart person with great legs. The book spans 30 years.
So, are all Steel's novels written like they're for remedial readers? I'm not being snide (I mean, I am, but I'm also serious.) Because short of YA, I can't imagine what the market is. Clearly, she's onto something, being the 7th-most popular author of all time, but seriously? I mean, I'll read trash, but the whole point is, it's usually entertaining. As opposed to this:
They talked for a long time....There was always a new boy in Gracie's life, and never one in her sister's. Victoria hadn't felt this miserable in a long time, and she was feeling sorry for herself. But she didn't say anything to Gracie about what a mess the week had been. After they hung up, Victoria took out the vanilla ice cream, opened it, walked into her room, turned on the TV, and got into her bed with her clothes on. She put on a movie channel, and finished the ice cream as she watched a movie, and then felt guilty when she looked at the empty ice cream carton next to her bed. It had been her dinner. And she could almost feel her hips growing as she lay there. She was utterly disgusted with herself. She put her pajamas on shortly after, got back into bed, and pulled the covers over her head. She didn't wake up until the next morning.
Her father said, whenever the subject came up, that if she'd lose some weight, she'd find a boyfriend. She knew that wasn't necessarily the case, since plenty of girls who had perfect figures and were half her size couldn't find a boyfriend. And other girls who were overweight were happily married, engaged, or had significant others. Romance, she knew, wasn't directly tied to your weight, there were a lot of other factors. And her lack of self-esteem and their constantly picking on her and criticizing her didn't help with that problem. They were never proud of her or satisfied with what she was doing (...) Whatever she did was never right or enough for them. And they never seemed to realize how painful their constant criticism was for her, or that it was why she never wanted to live in L.A.
Get the idea? Cause if not there's three hundred (admittedly large-type) pages more of it! Having read some rather patronizing commentary from Steel, I was poised for some Jemima J-style cringe-inducing thin-author antics. After all, this quote, from USA Today, was hardly promising:
Books are always written about beautiful people who find other beautiful people, but most people are regular people, and weight is an issue for a lot of them. I thought, it must be a drag to always have beautiful people highlighted in books. Why not make a heavier woman the star of the show? If you notice, I do not have Victoria lose weight by the end of the book, but she gets a great guy. I thought that was important and more real.
It seemed like this would be another book about weight being the great tragedy of a heroine's life, written about with forked-tongue sympathy. In fact, giving it more thought than it deserves, the portrayal of weight issues - and the cringe-inducing title - is the least of the book's problems. Steel's at pains to make clear that it's the comfort-eating and the self-image that are the issue, rather than the protagonist's size, and that the fixation on weight is the purview only of the shallow, evil characters. Health, rather than skinniness, is always being recommended by the sensible medical professionals that populate the book, with the dreary heavy-handedness of an after-school special. But frankly, it's hard to imagine Victoria slimming down: when you're already a cardboard cutout, there's not much to lose.
Big Girl [Barnes & Noble]
Q&A: Danielle Steel Writes Of Weight, Body Image In 'Big Girl' [USA Today]