In the last couple of weeks I have read 2 books that had overweight male characters as their protagonists. The first was Heft by Liz Moore, which we read for our Opinionless Virtual Book Club, and the second was Fruit by Brian Francis, a book that has been on my “to read” ever since it was listed as a runner-up for the 2009 Canada Reads. Both books touch on the theme of isolation and loneliness and wanting/needing to change because of it.
In Heft we are introduced to Arthur Opp, a morbidly obese ex-university professor who has been house bound for the last 10 years or so. He has an ex-student (Charlene) with whom he has maintained a relationship as a pen-pal. Arthur has not always been 100% honest in his letters so when Charlene phones him up out of the blue asking for some help he feels that he has some explaining to do before they meet again. He writes her one final letter saying that of course he will help and confesses the truth about his size and situation. He begins to prepare for their meeting by hiring a cleaning service to help dispose of 10 years worth of accumulated junk. The service sends over Yolanda, an 18-year-old girl who helps to bring Arthur out of his shell in preparation for his up coming reunion with Charlene. She could not have come at a better time– Arthur begins to make small changes and slowly begins to think that he can get out of his 10 year funk. Then, Charlene does not call back. Was it because of his confession?
It would be impossible to explain why I like her so much, why I liked her from the start. Partly, of course, it was that she liked me & I felt that I wanted to help her however I could. And partly it was that I recognized myself in her—in her awkwardness, her loneliness, her being very out-of-place, an outsider in a room full of compatriots. ~Arthur Opp
We come to find out, through the narration of her son Kel, that Charlene has not exactly been honest either. She has fallen out of work and into isolation because of an illness (Lupus) which she self-medicates by drinking. Kel struggles to be both parent and child to Charlene and it is a terrible burden to bear. They live in a poor area of town but Kel is permitted to attend a fancy private high school because Charlene used to work there. This also becomes a struggle for Kel, navigating a world that is so unfamiliar to him. These kids have EVERYTHING– opportunities, possessions, self-confidence– he feels like an impostor in their presence. Kel does have a special gift though– he is quite the baseball player and he plans to skip college to try for the big leagues. His mother does not agree with this path, another conflict that goes unresolved because of the circumstances that arise.
These circumstances are what cause Kel to finally get in contact with Arthur and all of the connections are made. This book reads like a puzzle that you cannot wait to finish so I don’t want to give too much away! The complex pieces will come together through the alternating voices of Arthur and Kel– you feel like you know these characters intimately and just want to reach out and give them a great big hug in the end!
Fruit actually touches on a lot of the same themes as Heft but it is told in a WAY more humorous way. Here we meet Peter Paddington, a peculiar overweight (and obviously gay) teenager who just wants to become the person that he thinks he is. He is in grade 8 this year and has a list of things he wants to achieve before he starts high school next year including: losing weight, shaving his legs, changing his personality, and getting a boy friend (as in a friend who is not a girl– his desire for a “boyfriend” he has not admitted to himself yet). He also needs to find a way of taming his nipples that seem to have come to life to taunt him with truths about himself that he just does not want to hear (yes, it sounds quirky but the nipples were actually HILARIOUS and the ways in which Peter tries to “tame” them was priceless and oddly significant).
The story takes place in 1984 so there were so many old references that just made me smile out loud to read (Big V Drug Store, ditto copies, actor Adrian Zmed, friendship pins, Sear’s catalogue, Jane Fonda workouts, headbands). His neurotic mother is deathly afraid of Jehovah’s Witnesses and is going through “the change” so Peter and his sisters have to be extra nice to her. She is a “larger” lady herself and lacks the self confidence to stick with any one project or job so she controls her life with food– both feeding and eating. Both of Peter’s sisters have broken free of the feedings and have managed to lose weight and gain control of their lives, something Peter is yet to do himself.
My parents have always wanted me to be normal, although they don’t come right out and say it. But I know I don’t always make the choices they want me to make. My mom tried to get me to sign up for hockey last year. Instead, I signed up for calligraphy class. ~Peter Paddington
Not much actually happens in this book and it does end a little abruptly but the dialogue that goes through this boy’s head keeps you in stitches the entire time you are reading! Hilariously, he believes that his job as paper boy for the Sarnia Observer is the most important job in the city and his fantasies about one of his male customers are an over-the-top hoot! The way he “saves” his best friend, potty-mouthed Daniella with the split ends, from her boyfriend, the Burger King Banger, also just cut me right up! Peter has such a grandiose opinion of himself inside of his head but he struggles to exude this confidence outwardly which is why he dreams of changing. In the end, like in Heft, you do get a glimpse of hope– that Peter will get what he is after once he truly accepts who he is and what he does have rather than striving to become something that he is not.
Both of these stories could have turned out to be depressing reads but these characters are filled with hope, humour and an underlying desire for change. The first step is the hardest!! Both Arthur and Peter were lovable misfits and I enjoyed every minute getting to know them! 4 stars for Heft and 3.5 for Fruit (only because of the abrupt ending– I wanted to get a glimpse of Peter in grade 9).
Note about Liz Moore, author of Heft: We spoke to Liz Moore at our Opinionless Virtual Book Club and what an insightful and well spoken person she is! Her explanations of how Heft and Arthur came to be made you just love him all the more! She was also very sympathetic to the plight of the high school misfits as well as those who made their lives a living hell. Her insight was one that I was not quite mature enough to grasp until she pointed it out! Very interesting and lovely to speak with her!! Click here for the Opinionless interview with Liz Moore.