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Hungry Heart

January 22, 2017

The label advertising 50% off should have been my first clue about the quality of Jennifer Weiner’s biography Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. I didn’t heed it, however.

The first page, quoting the first line of Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” starts the book out well, and the second chapter follows with an appeal to anyone who “read voraciously, indiscriminately, gulping down anything….” That’s us, right?

When you start to look closer, though, Weiner’s version of “indiscriminate” reading began with pictures of naked people in her dad’s medical textbooks. She breezes by the title page of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on the way to an extended description of her reaction to Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life, “with its scene about a couple having uninhibited sex during the woman’s menstrual period.” There’s a focus here that doesn’t seem indiscriminate to me.

We find out that it took young Jennifer until her junior year of high school before she could “stop saving up my money to buy the Tretorn sneakers or the Benetton sweaters” and “stop lying about the music that I liked.” As readers, we suspect she’s right when she says “I suspect that my teenage years have a lot in common with the episode of 30 Rock when Liz Lemon goes to her high school reunion, complaining that nobody was nice to her and learning that, in fact, she wasn’t nice to anyone.”

There are chapters about her quirky family and her first few jobs to illustrate the growth of her ambition: “I wanted fame and fortune…or, at least, I wanted to publish a book and earn enough money that my kids would never be pulled out of a college class-registration line.” If you’re reading her book (and this review) you probably know enough about her to know already that her hopes for her first novel included wanting representation for her plus-size female protagonist and “to toss the book like a life buoy to those girls and women, and to the girl I’d been, and tell them, Hold on to this, and I promise you, it’ll be all right.”

She talk about her failed attempts to be a perfect mother when her first child was born and how
“these days, I try, in my own small way, to be a corrective to the culture that makes women feel like they’re disgraces if they can’t do it all by themselves, to the magazines stuffed with shots of celebrities where the kids and mom are all clean and perfectly clothed and coiffed and there’s never a nanny or paid caregiver in sight. Whenever people ask about the work-life balance, or how to manage a writing career with motherhood—and unlike male authors with young children, I get asked about it all the time—I don’t lie. ‘I have a ton of help,’ I tell them.”

There’s a chapter of advice for new moms, most of it sounding like it comes from experience, especially “Do not be surprised when the instant your kid pulls off her socks on a thirty-degree day, or you give her a sip of your iced coffee…someone will appear out of nowhere to judge you.”

I found what she says about dieting to be the best part of the book, at least at first. She’s obviously been in the trenches, and more than once:
“You deprive yourself until you’re weak, faint, embarrassing yourself by drooling every time an Applebee’s commercial comes on. Then you cram whatever’s handy down your throat, and you don’t even taste it, and you eat more of it than you’d intended, and you hate yourself even more.”

Eventually, though, Weiner reveals that she had lap-band surgery in 2008 and admits that “it’s true that some of my decision was motivated by health and comfort…but some of it was caving in to external pressure, to everything the world said about larger bodies. Maybe, if I’d been stronger or happier, I could have figured out how to be in the world at a size twenty-eight instead of a sixteen; how to deal with not fitting into airplane seats or not being able to buy clothes even at the plus-size shops at the mall; how to let it roll off my back when snarky local bloggers posted pictures of me at my heaviest….”
I can’t blame her for having weight loss surgery, but there’s no help for me in reading about her journey, either, since that’s not a measure I contemplate. It doesn’t much matter, after that, that I identify with her when she says “the one constant in my life is hunger. I will never be able to take food or leave it; instead, I’ll take it, and then take more.” Because her answer to the morons who say things like “she could stop eating so much” is to have surgery.

Then there are big swathes of the book about topics that don’t interest me, like her ideas about the importance of Twitter and her love of little dogs and a television show called The Bachelor.

Even Weiner’s personal recounting of the big “chick lit” feud with Franzen is curiously brief and low-key. She doesn’t so much defend chick lit as make fun of the idea that there are such things as “serious works of fiction.”

If you’re still curious, I’d be glad to send you my copy of this book, but I’m telling you that you’d be better off reading something else. Read Good In Bed, Weiner’s first novel, instead–it’s fun. This one isn’t.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. rohanmaitzen permalink
    January 22, 2017 7:41 pm

    That does sound like a definite miss – and it sounds opportunistic, too, written to sell rather than from any deep sense of mission or revelation, or else why pack in so many miscellaneous topics just to share her thoughts on them? For me she has never been a convincing champion for her side in the “chick lit vs. literary fiction” wars, partly because of a similar lack of patient focus. Yes, defining what’s “serious fiction” can be arbitrary, or difficult, or revealing about extrinsic values — but to simply dismiss the possibility that there is a genuine difference in significance between some books and other books is just lazy, and too often that has seemed to be where she takes the fight.

    • January 23, 2017 10:45 am

      I think you’re absolutely right about it being opportunistic and her lack of patient focus, especially about trying to defining serious (or “literary”) fiction.
      I don’t feel that I can criticize anyone else too much for sharing her thoughts on miscellaneous topics, as it’s what I often do here–except that obviously I do it for free.

  2. January 23, 2017 3:08 pm

    Nope not curious especially after your review! Thanks for taking one for the team! 🙂

    • January 23, 2017 4:02 pm

      You’re welcome…I believe it was thinking about the chapters where she goes on about her little dogs made me dream about a dog last night, not something usual for me! (In case Jenny or Nancy read this, the dog was very much like their dog, only black.)

      • January 23, 2017 7:53 pm

        Wow, it’s one thing when a book you love slips into your dreams, another entirely when one you didn’t much care for does!

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