Just when I was doubting my grand plan to work through the fiction section of my library from A-Z, I ran across this gem of a novel that has caused me to renew my commitment. Book Doctor is like a type of good seduction–slow and sweet that catches you by surprise when you realize that you’ve fallen head over heels. Arlette is a book doctor seemingly by accident. She dreams of writing about Jerusalem, but instead helps others fulfill their dreams of writing all sorts of books. Little gems of absurdity twinkle throughout the book as Arlette shares letters from prospective clients and by doing so mocks New Agers, the self-involved, the self-important, and the simply silly. She sleeps with Jake, who puts together film festivals while dreaming of making his own film, but has no desire to commit. Then Harbinger Singh, an Indian CPA who specializes in tax returns, asks for her services to help write a revenge novel to get back at his ex-wife for failing to love him. Through Harbinger, who sees taxes as sexy and announces himself at her door by singing rather than knocking, Arlette begins to see the world again as a writer rather than a book doctor and to think about what she actually wants to do with her life other than watching it float by.
Book Doctor is full of great vignettes and funny lines. I’m not actually certain if I fell in love with the novel itself or with Harbinger and his honest and joyful way of looking at the world. Either way, Book Doctor is an unexpected delight hiding on the shelf in the middle of the C’s.
I grew up with plenty of stories about teenage girls suffering with eating disorders. In the eighties, if you read young adult fiction for girls, you might have thought every girl was struggling with anorexia or bulimia. It was a girls’ disease, brought on by the pressures of the media for thin, ethereal girls. This was a pre-Beyonce world.
The idea that boys might also suffer from these diseases never appeared in fiction or, to my memory, in the teen magazines of the day. Starved gives the lie to that image.
Nathan’s father is a lawyer working to advance and maintain his reputation at his firm and in their small town. His mother is a lawyer’s wife who attends yoga and participates in charitable activities while she obsesses about her image, including her body. Her neuroses about food and fat and her husband’s about public image are transferred to their son and Nathan begins to crack when a new bike becomes fetishized by hours and hours of exercising. This obsession takes a darker turn when a wrestler-classmate introduces Nathan to purging.
At first Nathan’s mother and friends praise his slimmer form, but, as he moves from slim to ghostly, few dare to ask what is going on. It’s not until his mother finds him passed out on the living room floor near renal failure that concern moves to action. Even when he is hospitalized, however, his father denies the problem and acts out in group therapy, blaming Nathan for causing the family problems rather than being a victim of them.
The most heart-wrenching scene is when the nurses ask Nathan and the girls on the floor with him to lie on butcher paper and trace their body outlines. Nathan cries and sees for the first time what he truly looks like and so begins his way to health.
Starved is a beautifully written story that brought me into the heart of Nathan, his caregivers, and even his unsympathetic parents. I can’t wait to read more from this debut author.
How well do we know our mothers outside of their role as our nurturers? Leila Cobo offers an interesting take on this question when twenty-four-year-old Gabriella, whose mother has been dead since she was three, finds the diary her mother began writing for her and then for herself while visiting her grandmother in Columbia. Gabriella, whose maternal grandparents were patricians in a small town in Columbia, was raised in L.A. by her movie-making, beautiful Hollywood father following her mother’s death in a plane crash, but spends a month each year with her mother’s people. This trip is different, however, as, about to graduate from college, Gabriella feels compelled to push the limits and finds herself less and less satisfied with the mother about whom she has been told. She becomes involved with the son of a mafioso and continues to see him against the wishes of her grandmother. Her headlong passion makes her more understanding when she finds her mother’s diary and begins reading about her adulterous relationship with another Columbian bad-boy. The diary ends without making clear what decision her mother had made: to stay in Columbia with her lover or come home to LA and her husband and daughter. Gabriella finds the lover in her quest for the truth and is confronted with the demon of time as she tries to reconcile the passionate exchanges recorded in the diary with the middle-aged, paunchy and balding man before her. In the end, Gabriella makes her own choice to leave the violent world of her mafioso lover and comes to peace with the fact that she will never know for sure what choice her mother was going to make, and the understanding that even her mother may not have known at the moment of her death.
Mother-daughter relationships are complex and, in women’s lit, often explored. Rebelling against a dead mother is no easier than against a living one, but the plot device here makes for an interesting read. The exotic setting in Columbia complete with mafiosos and their bodyguards does not hurt, either.