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Monday, September 8, 2014

YA Review: The Downside of Being Charlie

Actually, before you read this one, maybe hit the PG-13 section first and read the trigger warnings. Be kind to yourself, you know?

Also, if you argue with me about this by offering any kind of weight loss "advice" or diet talk - I will delete your comments without any hesitation. This isn't up for debate.

The Downside of Being Charlie by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Published: May 22nd, 2012 by Running Press Teens
Genre: Contemporary YA
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 266 pages
Part of a series? Nope
Got via: I was sent it to review
Amazon / Book Depository / IndieBound

Summary (from goodreads): Charlie is handed a crappy senior year. Despite losing thirty pounds over the summer, he still gets called “Chunks” Grisner. What’s worse, he has to share a locker with the biggest Lord of the Rings freak his school has ever seen. He also can’t figure out whether Charlotte VanderKleaton, the beautiful strawberry lip-glossed new girl, likes him the way he likes her. Oh, and then there’s his mom. She’s disappeared—again—and his dad won’t talk about it.

Somewhere between the madness, Charlie can at least find comfort in his one and only talent that just might get him out of this life-sucking place. But will he be able to hold his head above water in the meantime?

Review: This is kind of hard to write. Mostly because... I hated this book for a good hundred pages. I don't know if you know this, but for a long time, there was kind of a trend of "fat camp" or "fat kid" books where it was always FACT that the only reason that a kid was fat was because of course they ate massive amounts of junk food. Because only fat kids eat junk food. Then the fat kid would get sent away to fat camp where they'd eat meals like a half cup of cottage cheese and a lettuce leaf. Because that seems so healthy and not at all borderline-starvation and nutritionally deficent.

And, yes, you can argue that books exagerate and it was "comedy", but as a fat kid? I was literally terrified of being sent away to fat camp. So as an adult, I don't really find it that funny. Kids should not have to worry about that. Ever.

So when the book opened with Charlie having just come back from fat camp (it's called Camp Fit, but Charlie knew and we all know it was fat camp) and having lost thirty pounds, I honestly almost quit reading. Especially when the book proceeded to talk about Charlie eating huge amounts of food, because it was so exagerated, like three helpings of spaghetti followed by two of ice cream. Let's be real - almost no one eats like that. Well, I mean. I have a cousin who kinda does, but he grew literally a foot taller in a year and also was/is kind of a stoner, so he doesn't count. Plus he's not fat. The point is, fat people, on average, don't eat that different from thin people. (Citation.)

You have what seems like stereotypes about fat people stuffing themselves constantly, fat camp, Charlie calling other fat people rejects and freaks, and then the really fun part where he talks about how huge he was at 265 pounds and almost six feet and how shocked he was to be obese. (Let's not talk about how BMI means basically nothing besides how tall you are and how much you weigh. It was not invented to have anything to do with health. The guy who invented it wanted to use it to classify bodies as "normal" and "deviant". Citation. Citation 2. AND while we're at it, maybe the reason he was shocked to find out he was obese was because he had no idea what really looks like. This guy is just shy of obese. This guy is obese. So is this guy. And this guy almost is. And, surprise, THIS guy is obese.)

You really can't blame me for almost giving up, right?

And then things got a little better, by which I mean they got a lot worse for Charlie. He started gaining weight back ('cause that's what happens, almost all of the time, and those lost pounds bring friends, too - citation, citation, citation, citation, citation, citation) and finds out that, surprise, when your life is messed up, losing weight doesn't fit it. Your life is still messed up and now everyone expects the weight lost to have fixed it. Except now you have no way to cope and you have to fight your body which desperately does not want to be starved, for some reason.

And Charlie starts getting attention he doesn't know how to handle from people who used to ignore him. A lot of them aren't great people. And he doesn't know how to handle that because he's used to being invisible. Meanwhile, he's resentful of people who eat normally in front of him, especially his best friend Ahmed who's naturally skinny and eats large amounts of "junk" food without gaining weight. (Funny how that works. Isn't it.) And Charlie sometimes acts as if he's doing it on purpose, because of course it's completely inconsiderate of him to eat in front of Charlie, right? (No.)

Then stuff with his parents starts to go very badly and Charlie begins to deal with it with binging and purging. And that is realistic. Sad, obviously. But realistic. Things get worse with the parents, the eating disorder gets worse. He restricts, then binges and purges. Again, realistic. I don't have any links to the rates of eating disorders in people who used to just be dieters, but information about kids and eating disorders can be found here. Lots of good info there.

Okay, this part got really long... I should probably do the other parts.

Plot Talk: I think we got it from the rambling above, yeah?

Characters: I think you can tell from the previous few (*cough*) paragraphs that I didn't really like Charlie for a good third of the book. He was, quite honestly, kind of a jerk. He had tons of internalized fatphobia and he treated the girl he liked like such a MPDG. At one point, he even says she was supposed to "save" him. He got better as the book goes on, but it's a hard road to get there. And it takes a lot of growth.

His best friend Ahmed was cool. Way into the Rat Pack and that kind of thing. Kind of sexist/gross towards girls, though, but he gets called out on it at the end of the book. And he was a very good friend to Charlie.

Hooboy this review is long.

Okay, so. Charlotte was not my favourite character. But a lot of that is probably deliberate, I will admit, because Charlie only saw her one way with the whole MPDG thing, and it was super idolized and pretty much ignored her as a person. When she was actually allowed to have a personality with, you know, needs and emotions and thoughts, I liked her a whole lot better and she became a much stronger character.

I also really disliked his dad for a lot of the book. His dad was the one who sent Charlie to fat camp and was so food-shamey and fatphobic. He's super gross in treating Charlie like he was wrong for eating. (Newsflash, eating is not a moral act. It's not, like, cocaine or something, for crying out loud.) Literally at one point he said that Charlie needed an "intervention".

And even after Charlie lost weight (which by the way - can we talk about the fact that 30 pounds over one summer is not a healthy weight loss?? Even pro-diet/weight-loss sites like LiveStrong only recommend one to two pounds a week. I don't know about you, but I've never heard of a 30 week summer), his dad was removed, constantly gone, and it's hard for me to like someone who basically abandons his kid. He start to make progress at the end, though. And he was a good character, if he wasn't a likeable one, at least. And boy was he not likeable.

PG-13 stuff: There was a lot of language. A lot. Some underage drug use mentioned and probably some drinking, too. And the subject matter is mature, especially the descriptions of Charlie's eating disorder. They can be very graphic.

So trigger warnings for - suicide, sizeism, eating disorders, attempted non-consensual drug use, bullying, and some ableism. Oh, and emetophobia because, yeah. (If you don't know what that is, Wikipedia it.)

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: I think we got all my complaints already. Let's move on.

Cover comments: Okay, here's my thing. I actually like the cover. It's neat, lots of personality. But between the cover and the back summary, it comes off way more "quirky comedy" so to be reading along expecting that and be hit BAM in the face with the eating disorder and the rather graphic descriptions of that, it's startling for me and it could easily be very painful for someone to just stumble onto that. Especially, say, a kid who was dealing with that same kind of behaviour themselves. To just get that in your face with no warning isn't a fun experience.

I can kinda understand it, because maybe your average kid who might need this book wouldn't pick it up if it had a more serious cover, but it still just doesn't seem like it fits to me. And then to have no indication of the eating disorder? It feels somewhat irresponsible and I hope no one was hurt by it.

Conclusion: This is ridiculously long and you're probably sick of me talking, so let's try and wrap this up.

Like I said, I very much disliked the first 100 pages or so. It's really hard to like a book that spends a lot of time insulting you. And Charlie does not only talk about his own body. He talks about other fat people being losers, freaks, pathetic, etc. And it's obviously what he's feeling about himself, but that doesn't excuse that he isn't saying those things about himself. He's saying them about other people. Which include me. Fun to read that!

And the book never has one character come out and say, "Hey, Charlie, you're not a pathetic loser because you're fat. It's okay to be fat. You don't need to lose weight." And I have to wonder, what does that say to fat teenagers? Sending you away to fat camp is okay, because you obviously need to lose weight when you're fat, but when it stops working despite you not changing or when an impractical, almost impossible diet becomes too much for you to bear, don't start purging or anything. But restricting's okay!

Obviously that last bit was a little sarcastic and I don't think the author meant to send that message, but I do worry that that would be what a fat kid reading this would absorb. It would not have taken that much for someone to say that being fat is okay. (It is.) Or that, hey, you can be healthy and fat! (You can. Citation. Citation. Citation.) It's almost taken for granted that, yeah, Charlie being fat is terrible.(It's not.)

I definitely think this kind of book is important. There aren't a lot of books, as far as I know, about boys with eating disorders, and the rates are rising. But I personally would not feel comfortable recommending it when I had to struggle through the first 100 pages because they were so full of body hate and it's never negated. Even when Charlie is kinda-dating Charlotte, who's thin and conventionally attractive, there's never even a moment of, "Yeah, she thinks you're hot, dude" or anything that says "hey, it's okay that you're fat" or even "HEY fat people are worthwhile human beings and maybe you shouldn't talk about them like they're scum".

One sentence could have changed how I felt about this book a lot. But there was never that sentence. I thought the second-half was much better written, but it utterly failed in this aspect. And because of that, I can't rate this higher than two roses. And I actually really hate that because boys with eating disorders, that fat people can have eating disorders and still be fat, those are important stories. But I just can't in good faith go higher than that.

I hope you guys can understand why.

Other Notes:

- I couldn't fit it in, but this is a good post about eating while fat. And if you'd like to do more reading, this is a good place to start.

Peace and cookies,

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