BOOK REVIEWS

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)

While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.

“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”

Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.

Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).

“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”

We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.

Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.

I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.

Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:

“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”

my rating: ★★½

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote

46142949._SY475_.jpgTW: mentions of self-harm

Not only was Too Much not enough but what little it offers is wholly problematic.
This book would have made slightly more sense if it had been published in 2010 instead of 2020. Its analysis of the social norms and literature emerging from the Victorian era are far from insightful or innovative. There are so many referencers to films that are now considered outdated and of little cultural relevance. Cote’s theory of too muchness is unclear and indecisive, and her chapters do not have clear topics.
Also, rather than normalising women who are viewed or have been viewed as ‘too much’ Cote glorifies them while tearing down women who do not fall under this category. What about female solidarity?
But I could have looked past all of this. After all, feminism is ‘in’, and there is nothing wrong with jumping on the feminist bandwagonexcept that I soon picked up on something rather disconcerting: Cote romanticises and idealises mental illness and self-harming.

From my rating, and my ranty review below, you can probably guess that I disliked this book, a lot.
For those readers who want to read some interesting, and feminist, analysis of Victorian literature I thoroughly recommend you check out Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
If you have the time I also recommend Cynthia Nixon’s Be a Lady They Said in which she reads a poem about the impossible and contradictory standards society imposes on women.

My Review

In Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today Rachel Vorona Cote’s sets out to address the way in which mores and literature emerging from the Victorian era still bind women today. Combining cultural criticism with personal experiences Cote examines Victorian classics as well as fiction, films, and songs from the last and the current century. Throughout the course of Too Much Cote turns to her theory of ‘too muchness’. These perceived excesses—which range from emotional (such as crying) to the physical (from one’s physique to one’s hair)—make women undesirable within their society. Cote doesn’t clearly specify whether these excesses are seen as excess because they belong to or are originating from a woman, and would not therefore be seen as excessive in a man, or whether these excesses are a perfect response to existence in a patriarchal world.

In her introduction Cote writes that Too Much “draws significantly from nineteenth-century literature and culture, grounding its discussion in a historical period when women’s too muchness underwent vigorous medical scrutiny, routinely receiving a specific, vexed verdict” and that she will turn to Victorian works in order to gain accesses to female perspectives (Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) as these works convey the Victorian period’s anxiety regarding ‘the woman question’ (from their bodily autonomy to their legal rights and their role in a marriage dominated culture).
What I don’t understand is why Cote stresses this Victorian connection when in actuality she includes works by Jane Austen and dedicates almost an entire chapter to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels. Her introduction and the title of her book suggest that Cote will specifically compare Victorian literature and culture to ‘today’s’…why then dedicate entire chapters to Montgomery, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), or Britney Spears?

Cote’s analysis of these Victorian classics offer no new insights into these works or their authors.
After the introduction there are two chapters, ‘Chatterbox’ and ‘Nerve’, which seem to focus on the same subject: girls who are seen as ‘passionate’ in literature (Jane Eyre and Anne Shirley). The next chapter focuses on female friendships in a rather inconclusive manner. Is Cote telling us that female friendships are bound to have an obsessive if not toxic nature? Is she criticising Noah Baumbach’s Francesca Ha? Why then add her own personal experience with a friendship with another woman which was ‘too much’? Especially since in her case she suggests that one of the reasons why this friendship ended was because of her more-than-friendly-feelings towards her friend?
Cote writes of the sisterly bonds in Goblin Market and The Woman in White, suggesting that both of them have sapphic undercurrents (while I can see why the sisters in Rossetti’s poem can be seen as being lovers, Wilkie Collin’s sisters are merely affectionate with one another). Then she seems to complain about the way in which Anglo-American society would view a close bond between two women or sisters as sexual…and yet she is doing exactly the same thing. More importantly, this chapter also includes a long winded and unnecessary analysis of Heavenly Creatures a film that is rather dated, does not portray a typical female friendship, and most importantly, was based on the 1954 Parker–Hulme murder case. Why focus on this long-forgotten film instead of more recent releases which focus on female friendships? She mentions Elena Ferrante…so why not write more about her series? Or question the trend of female doubles in domestic thrillers?
We then have a chapter on the ‘Body’, and Cote once more writes her own personal experiences, this time with the notion of being ‘too fat’. Here she examines Victorian’s romanticisation of thin female bodies and the way in which a small physique and lack of appetite often denoted one’s altruistic and morally upright nature (such as Charles Dicken’s Dorrit). Once again Cote seems to criticise Victorian’s ideal of femininity and beauty, implying that one’s physical appearance (such as one’s natural hair) should not be regarded as reflecting one’s personality…and then she goes on to praise Lena Dunham from Girls for a nude scene in an “aesthetic defiance”: Lena “someone larger than a size two” possesses a body that “is not tame” but is “thick, firm, implacable” and “try as you might to sidle next to her in a murky bar or tug her arm on a dance floor or nudge her to the side on the subway, she will not budge”.
She finishes the chapter with the following:
“But when we are fat, when our hair defies gravity, when our noses are not perfectly pinchable, we’re interpreted as wild and unruly, and often foreign. This—I know, I feel—is good. We remind all those buttressed and soothed by patriarchy that we cannot always be trusted to comply and, thus, we become threats, fuses primed to be lit.”
Throughout this chapter Cote criticises the way in which previous centuries have dictated the way in which a female body should be like maintaining the argument that women should not be judged on the basis of their appearance…and then she goes on to do exactly the same, merely flipping this idea over so that women who are not skinny, do not have perfectly symmetrical faces or bodies, or have gravity defying hair cannot be tamed: they are ‘stronger’, more unruly, more confident…women who straighten their hair, go to the gym, get plastic surgery are ‘less’, they are tame, happy to let a patriarchal society dictate the way in which they should look. It appears that Cote is judging women on the basis of their appearance. Mmh…there is something vaguely phrenological about this way of thinking.
Also, Cote seems to gloss over the fact that it is often women who police other women’s bodies+appearance…then again, she is doing exactly the same thing.
I have ‘wild’ curly hair, and I always dislike when strangers or friends assume that it is indicative of my personality. It isn’t…tis’ my hair, nothing more, nothing less.
Cote also misses out on discussing why women are made to feel so aware of their appearance and why ideals of beauty are constantly changing (apropos the Victorians she could have pointed out that small waists are back in fashion).

In the following chapter ‘Crazy’ she discusses mental health. Here she starts with an over-analysis of lyrics from Lana Del Rey’s songs, and seems to view Lana’s songs as autobiographical (why are female musicians/singers always questioned about their lyrics in a way that their male counterparts are not? Can’t women write a song that is unrelated to their own life experiences?).
You would think that Cote would mention ‘the Woman in the Attic’ trope—popularised in Victorian literature—but before writing of Jane Eyre she discusses Pride and Prejudice…which is confusing given that 1) it is not from the Victorian era, 2) does not have a ‘crazy’ female character. According to Cote however it is Mrs. Bennet who is seen as ‘crazy’….wait, what? I don’t think many readers have ever regarded Mrs. Bennet as an example of the ‘crazed’ female. Mrs. Bennet says that her ‘nerves’ are delicate but to me it seems quite clearly an excuse to get other people to do what she wanted them to (in fact she reminds of Frederick Fairlie from The Woman in White). Also, Cote seems to have forgotten that P&P is a work of satire…
When Cote finally addresses the most ‘famous’, or infamous, ‘mad’ female character from Victorian lit. her reading adds nothing new, she unearths no new depths in the implications of her portrayal. She then discusses Britney Spears…at length. She seems aware that celebrities do not reflect the experiences of a ‘normal’ person…so why spend so many pages on the “plight of Britney Spears”? Wouldn’t it have been more relevant to examine why so many women are mis-diagnosed? Or why female neurodiversity is only now being openly talked about? Why bother criticising Silver Linings Playbook because it pays more attention to its male protagonist than Jennifer Lawrence’s character? And once again discussing celebrities such as Demi Lovato? Anything and everything that a celebrity does is magnified, so surely we shouldn’t compare their experiences to the rest of the female population?
Only in the last page does Cote mention ‘positive’ portrayals of female mental illness: Crazy Ex-girlfriend, Tuca and Bertie, and Jessica Jones. What about the thousands of YA books that openly discuss mental illness and addiction? Or the rise in novels that focus on female characters who are on the autistic spectrum?
As pointed out by
Emma Sarappo in her review of Too Much, Cote seems devoted to “the cult of the difficult woman”. In this chapter Cote hints that women who are labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ experience the world more keenly than those who aren’t. Depression shouldn’t be regarded as a medal of valour or some such nonsense. Those who struggle with their mental health or substance abuse should not be shamed nor should we romanticise or fetishise their struggle. Yet Cote seems to equated ‘troubled’ with ‘special’.
Also, in this chapter Cote suggests that alcoholism is condoned in men…which…really?!

The last few chapters talk about female sexuality, cheating, ageism…and cutting. The chapter on cutting is the most problematic chapter in this book. Here once again Cote mixes her personal experiences with her analysis of Victorian classics and contemporary culture. She writes of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and finishes off by discussing Prozac Nation, Sharp Objects, and Girl, Interrupted. Here, I was momentarily fooled because finally, Cote seemed to be praising shows that do not romanticise mental illness or self-harming. Sharp Objects and Girl, Interrupted are personal favourites of mine so I was glad to see that their portrayal of self-harming resonated with Cote. Sadly, Cote completely destroys her previous arguments—in which she stresses that self-harming should not be used as a gimmick or idealised—by writing the following:
“A confession: I cut myself in the midst of writing this chapter, old habits quickened, I suppose, by the barb of memory. I am still learning that self-harm is not narcissism. A woman who is cutting is not indulging; she is carving out a route to survival, the only one that’s perceptible to her. And although she is no culprit, although she owes neither defense nor apology, she is already ashamed.”

Let’s remember that this is not a memoir about self-harming. This book focuses on cultural criticism and Victorian literature. Cote’s personal experiences can be somewhat relevant but they should not dominate the narrative of Too Much especially if she uses them romanticise mental illness and self-harming. Surely she is aware that her audience will be mostly composed by impressionable undergraduates? Surely she knows that this last ‘wink wink, old habits die hard’ comment is wholly inappropriate? Is she suggesting that the only way to write and understand self-harming is by doing the same thing? Or that once a self-harmer, always a self-harmer? That self-harming is an understandable response to existing in a patriarchal world or being labelled ‘too much’?
After reading those lines I felt nauseated. Her words were incredibly triggering and I had to take some time off reading. When I once again picked up Too Much I merely skimmed through the last chapters.

Cote’s popcorn feminism is simplistic and superficial. She tries to keep up with today’s woke language but ends up expressing antiquated ideas: that women should be judged on the basis of their appearance, that we should idealise mental illnesses, addiction, and self-harming, that being sexually active is more empowering than being inactive….generalisation after generalisation, Cote’s theory of ‘too muchness’ does not expand on why there are so many words, in the English language, with bad connotations, which are used almost exclusively to describe women’s behaviour/attributes/traits. Not all of these words point to ‘excess’: take prudish for example. Surely, women today are not only constrained by notions of too muchness but by the possibility of not being enough. Victorian’s ideal of a woman is no longer popular. While Victorian reviewers criticised Jane Eyre for being a bad heroine, modern readers adore Jane. If anything we criticise heroines who strike us as passive, as not being enough. Yet, Cote seems stuck in the early 2000s.
There are so many shows and books shows that depict in a non-judgemental way female desire, addiction, mental illness, friendships, and even masturbation.

I’m not sure what else to add…and I have nearly run out of characters…Too Much was problematic, inconclusive, and perpetuates outdated ideas.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

View all my reviews