Review: Huge by Sasha Paley

Huge by Sasha Paley. Simon & Schuster, 2007. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Face Value: I like the bold statement of the blocked out s’more on the cover. The cover image has a bit of sarcasm, which forecasts the biting tone of much of the characters’ dialogue. This was the cover on the copy that I got from the library. It’s fine, but I like the re-issued cover better…

ABC Family did a television series based on Huge, and this is the book cover that was re-issued to coincide with the series. I love that the model on the cover accurately represents the characters in the book. Remember my complaint about the too-skinny model on the cover of Small Persons with Wings? I am so glad that the same problem does not apply to this updated cover.

Does it break the slate? Sadly, no. Huge has so much promise at the beginning. I was really hoping that Wil and April would defy my expectations – and they did for a while, but both characters take sudden and predictable turns at the end of the story, creating a neatly wrapped up ending that betrays the potential these two female characters show at the beginning of the book. Also, the fatphobia exhibited throughout the book counts severely against it.

Who would we give it to? I would give this book to anyone who watched Huge (the television show) on ABC Family so that they could read it and tell me what they think of the book versus the series. I have heard such good things about the show, and I thought that the book would be great. I have been unsuccessful in finding episodes online, so I cannot compare the two. I want to know if, in this rare case, the TV show is actually better than the book. Readers, are any of you familiar with both the book and the show? What do you think?

Review: When I learned that there was a YA book about two girls going away to a ‘fat camp’ – otherwise known as a ‘wellness spa’ – I had high hopes for its Slatebreaking potential. I hoped that Huge would showcase two young female characters who happened to be overweight but had positive self-image and went about the weight loss process in a healthy way. I thought that perhaps Paley would surprise readers with a subversive and ingenuous approach to writing characters who struggle with their weight…but that didn’t happen.

April and Wil both end up at Wellness Canyon camp for the summer, but they have arrived via vastly different paths. April has long been struggling with her weight, and obesity runs in her family. She has scrimped and saved for months in order to afford the outrageous fee for a summer at Wellness Canyon. April is definitely the exception among the campers at Wellness Canyon. Most of them, including Wil, are rich kids whose parents foot the bill for camp. Some have even been there multiple times. Wil’s parents are the owners of a major chain of fitness clubs. She is their dark secret – an overweight daughter in a family of fitness gurus. Wil resents being sent to Wellness Canyon because it emphasizes how much her parents care about her looks versus her interests, passions, and intellectual abilities. The two girls make totally mismatched roommates, and they decide to take different approaches to the summer. April, determined to get her money’s worth, works very hard to lose weight. Wil aims to spite her parents by being the first ever person at fat camp to gain weight throughout the summer. Personalities clash. Words are exchanged. Things get ugly.

Of course, there’s romance at camp. Both girls develop a serious crush on Colin, a fellow camper. He’s suave enough to charm both girls into kissing him…on the same night. April and Wil are furious at each other, but then they realize the truth: Wil is totally slimy. The two battling roommates team up to plot revenge against the evil Colin. As April and Wil become nefarious camp pranksters, their rivalry turns into a begrudging friendship.

At the moment when April and Wil turn against Colin and forge a friendship, I was so hopeful that the book would have a Slatebreaking turning point. And it did get better for a while! April and Wil found that the stimulating conversation, humor, and support of a friendship was much more fulfilling than the fleeting attention of a boy. That was a step in the right direction. But then the book began to focus on weight loss and how each girl’s body image improved. Normally I would be ok with this, but the author wrote about April’s pre-weight loss body in a way that emphasized its undesirable qualities. Rather than promoting body positivity for those of any shape and size, Paley describes the campers’ bodies as if they are objects of marvel, like something on display at a freak show. I was very uncomfortable with the way overweight bodies were described. It gave me the same icky feeling that online celebrity body snarking gives me.

At the end of the book, I felt that the girls’ happiness was dependent upon their weight loss rather than independent from it. That just doesn’t sit right. Yes, I am happy to see that they achieved greater levels of fitness through exercise and healthy eating, but some of that process was motivated by self-loathing.  Huge is unusual among YA literature because it features characters coping with weight-related health issues, but I wish that the story took a more acceptance-based approach. I wanted to feel satisfied with the conclusion of Huge, but it left me with the unsettling sensation of having judged fictional characters primarily on physical appearance and fitness.

I went searching online for YA books about fat or overweight characters that avoid the traps of fat phobia and sizeism, and I found this excellent post by Kathryn Nolfi for The Horn Book. She recommends The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things as a YA novel that shows fat acceptance, and I heartily agree. When I read that book, I admired the character’s body image and felt excited about her approach to health and fitness. It didn’t make me feel judgmental and mean in the way that Huge did. Do you know of more books out there that take on the challenge of overweight and fat characters without a fatphobic approach?  Please share your recommendations. I’d like to expand my reading repertoire of body-positive YA literature.

Reviewed from library copy.


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4 Responses to Review: Huge by Sasha Paley

  1. Sarah says:

    I have to make an embarrassing admission here: I LOVED the tv show, but I never read the book! But seriously, it was an extraordinary season of television, and one of the most Slatebreaking shows I’ve ever seen. 2 years later I am still devastated that it was canceled. Here you have this concept that could have been handled so badly, just one fat joke after another or cheesy inspiration and instead we got an remarkably complex cast of diverse characters that dealt with a whole spectrum of issues including the politics of body image and weight, but also sexuality and romance and divorce and siblings and friendship and a whole host of other things. The campers all had different responses to being at camp. Wil was furious that her parents/the camp/society was dictating what her body should look like. Amber wanted to lose weight. BOTH of these responses were validated by the show, and treated as legitimate. I’m surprised, and super disappointed, that the book doesn’t have that same attitude. But delighted that the show creators were able to take a flawed book and create something awesome out of it. I wonder if that actually can strengthen an adaptation – if the book has a promising concept but isn’t perfectly executed, you’re less trapped in recreating that success when translating it to a new art form? Take the tv show vs. the original movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example

    • Brianna says:

      I really need to see the show, because I feel like I am only capable of participating 50% in the discourse about the book without having that contextual knowledge. And I just want to watch it for fun.

  2. de Pizan says:

    It’s not perfect, but there’s Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught–about a girl writing about fat acceptance for the school paper, and dealing with her boyfriend’s decision to get his stomach stapled.

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