Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is a collection of short stories that follows the protagonist, Elizabeth, from adolescence to adulthood and gives us a snapshot of 13 moments in her battle with herself and her body and herself and her mind. We find an inverse relationship between her battles with her body and mind: as she loses weight she falls into disordered and obsessive thinking. All but two of the stories are told from Elizabeth’s point of view; “Your Biggest Fan” and “She’ll Do Anything” are told from a lover and her husband’s view, respectively. This structure does fit the story very well; presenting the book as a series of short stories rather than one continuous story allows Awad to explore the different selves that Elizabeth inhabits throughout her journey.
Awad does an excellent job inhabiting the voices of the narrators, whether that be the men or the many different manifestations of Elizabeth. Elizabeth changes her name throughout the book as an effort to define her ever-changing self. Her various egos, Lizzie, Liz, Beth and Elizabeth, all have a different voice. My one disappointment with the writing is: Awad does a great job of inhabiting the person in each story, but I did not find enough of a connecting thread between the different versions of Elizabeth. The personality of young Lizzie is drastically different than young adult Liz/Beth and from Elizabeth with her all-consuming eating-disorder. Though it is true that one evolves throughout one’s lifetime, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of a connection between these different selves.
Despite the lack of connection between the characters’ selves, what Awad does very well is her close examination of the relationship between a woman’s own self and with those who surround her: her mother, lovers, best friends, co-workers, neighbours, and strangers. Awad captures the nuances of how women relate to each other. She portrays how women’s relationship walk the tightrope between love and hate, admiration and jealousy, compassion and competition.
Awad is an excellent writer, but 13 Ways is not what I expected. It is touted as “brilliant, hilarious, and at time shocking.” I would call it “raw, uncomfortable, and generally apt.” Awad’s writing is clean, clear, and humorous. Some women may be lucky enough not to know the physical/metaphysical burden of weight, but I am not one. Therefore, this story resonated with me. I saw myself in Elizabeth, or I saw women I know and love. Through these 13 stories Awad creates a narrative that follows a particular trajectory, but also overarches enough to overlap with many women’s stories at one point or another. The sad as the reality is, I agree with Mel; “Maybe [our old fat] is all around us. Maybe we’re all around us.”
Review by Stephanie Limacher