Let me preface this review by saying that I grew up on Danielle Steel, who wrote some of my favorite books of all tiYeah, I'm calling it on page 197.
Let me preface this review by saying that I grew up on Danielle Steel, who wrote some of my favorite books of all time (Full Circle, Family Album, Palomino.) I have loved many of her books, where I got to live vicariously through her glamorous characters throughout many different exciting and angst-ridden experiences.
Looks like I'm going to have to dig out those old copies and re-read them because the things I used to love about her writing were clearly left in the rear view mirror for "Big Girl." Honestly it felt like the story was phoned in to sell some books, tapping into a specific niche gaining ground in the publishing world.
Romance readers no longer buy into the BS that you have to be a perfect size 4 to find love. There's room for all shapes and sizes, which opens up a lot of opportunities for storytellers who are ready to embrace the imperfect.
Clearly this was a struggle for Danielle Steel, proving the old adage "write what you know" remains as true as ever. Not every writer is meant to write every book, and that was absolutely the case here.
(Following are minor spoilers and a major rant.)
Ms. Steel dramatically veers away from her fabulously beautiful and slender heroine prototype. Instead she introduces us to Victoria, a girl hated from BIRTH (prior to any weight issues,) for not being pretty enough.
You read that right. A newborn baby girl was derided for not... being pretty... enough. Welcome to the world of "Big Girl."
Steel goes on to tell this tale in a glossy overview, rather than active voice. All those famous tales of angst (Zoya, for instance) were merely an echo in "Big Girl." Instead, what she used to do in one chapter (overview catching the reader up to speed on the story she's trying to tell,) she did almost exclusively throughout the book. This level of "glossing over" is clearly sleight of hand, in which she's attempting to tell a story without any real confidence in the subject matter, hence the "phoned in" feeling I got as a reader.
Worse, the "telling" of the story, rather than the "showing," was painfully redundant. We get hit with the same message again and again. Her parents were a-holes, they verbally and emotionally abused her as "jokes" or "helpful" advice, so naturally she finds her comfort in emotional overeating, which makes the situation worse.
Only we didn't really get to see how her decisions impacted the world around her, or in fact molded her character, which they absolutely would have.
Steel glossed over Victoria's childhood for the first three chapters, which was a huge misstep. Why tell this part of the story unless it was to demonstrate what motivates her and what challenges her? There has to be SOMETHING more than just being teased by a jerk of a father. One lone voice, even from a parent, wouldn't have been enough to do the trick. How did the world around her drill this mindset home, forever cementing it in her psyche?
Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of this, despite the fertile ground to toil. I can only guess it is because DS doesn't understand one fundamental truth: being "big" affects every single aspect of your life, not just your love life. The reason it affects your love life is because it so seriously undermines everything else, courtesy of the message that society reinforces (and this book demonstrates page after page after page, though probably not in the way DS intended it.)
Anyone who was ever fat in high school knows that it never gets any worse than those four years of hell where you are most harshly judged for "standing out." But instead of being the butt of jokes for superficial boys, the nasty target of girl bullying by pretty, popular girls, the vomit-inducing dilemma of PE requirements and prom, all we ever got to see was how crappy her parents treated her.
There were no outcast friends, no nasty frenemies, all we got, again and again, was the family dynamic where her perfect parents favored her perfect sister and treated her like crap because she was big. It is almost as if you removed her folks entirely, she'd have it made. Their approval was set up as a major driving force, but how did this change her, really? How did this motivate her? What was in these first, formative years to *drive* the plot forward, to give our heroine something to fight for, or an enemy to defeat?
By page 197, I really couldn't tell you what her motivation is, or what her goals are. What she wanted she usually got, and she didn't have to change or suffer for any of it. If she pined over anything, even her parents' approval, it wasn't clearly defined.
Instead she seemed perfectly willing to meander along in her life as a passive footnote, casually and as superficially as the author herself as she weaves the tale.
Not only did Victoria have a pretty peaceful high school experience, she went on to graduate Northwestern and nab her dream job teaching at a prestigious private school in Manhattan, AND land an apartment within walking distance, all right out of the gate without any real obstacle. Everything comes easily for Victoria, including her relationship with the sister she probably should have resented.
There was one glaring exception for the audience, however. This romance novel has precious little romance.
Here's where Danielle Steel fails the "Rubenesque" romance genre she attempted to conquer, a place where authors like Jennifer Weiner and Jasinda Wilder have already carved specific niches.
Thin writers who attempt to "understand" the specific journey of a plus-sized woman buy into certain stereotypes, which aren't necessarily a common experience for all women of size. They get the low self-esteem, they can even empathize to some degree how that low self-esteem came to be. But they assume, incorrectly, that big girls are dating ingenues who are clueless, dateless and completely without game. They assume, incorrectly, that we're SOL finding a man willing to overlook our big sin of being... well, big.
By no surprise, this is where this non-story falls apart.
The way it was told, one of two things would motivate Victoria's behavior and her choices. She either believes what she has been told, or she doesn't. As such she would have either imploded in self-destruction or exploded in self-exploration, just to prove them right or wrong.
If she believes she's more than what her parents see, then she would find confidence (or rebellion) to branch out with other relationships, including men. Anecdotally speaking, she would have probably gone for older men to get the approval that was glaringly missing from her dad.
This desire to prove her parents wrong would make her much more proactive in her life to claim what her parents had long denied she could have, just like her career and her schooling. (And dating in college, up to and including losing her virginity, would have reinforced this.)
If she DOES believe what her parents have told her, then she would never have had the confidence to chase after her defiant dream to do what her father said she couldn't/shouldn't do. Her self-loathing would have devolved into self-destructive behavior up to and including promiscuity.
But instead, she faced more doubt over a guy asking her out on a date than she did applying to an exclusive private school fresh out of college.
The confidence it takes to pick up and move across the country to one of the biggest cities in the world translates to every area, just like the passivity of accepting her father's treatment would likewise cripple her existence.
Someone who has that arrow in her quiver is perfectly able to go on a first date with a guy without it devolving into a "does he like me, or LIKE like me?" adolescent dilemma.
This was, in fact, where I gave up on this particular book. I had zero confidence that the author could weave a realistic *and respectful* tale of romance. Instead, Ms. Steel represented her plus-size heroine as an emotional adolescent when it came to men. The first man to show her some interest in NYC has her telling anyone that could possibly listen how this guy couldn't POSSIBLY ask her on a date because she's fat, in conversations that could have been lifted out of any high school lunch room.
This, after almost zero high school angst, graduating a top university AND landing her dream job with little to no drama, and having a healthy, positive relationship with her younger sister.
She should have had SOME measure of confidence, but the world Danielle Steel set up for her doesn't reinforce that. Even her gay friends, which have always been my most supportive group despite my size, had something negative to say about her size.
"I'm the odd man out in my family too," she admitted. "They're all thin people with brown eyes and dark hair. I'm the family freak. My father always gives me a hard time about my weight. My mother leaves clippings on my desk about new diets."
"That's mean," Harlan said sadly, although he had noticed the things and the quantities she ate when she was tired or depressed. He thought she had a pretty face and great legs, despite the generous middle. But in spite of it, she was a good-looking woman.
This inner dialogue comes from her FRIEND, a gay man, which means the only message repeating, loud and clear, is that being big is a flaw one must overlook to love her. Thanks to the complete LACK of positive relationships in her life, aside from her sister, this message is hammered home every single time DS misses the chance to couple her with a man who is actually straight.
If her heroine had been slender, she'd have been married twice and widowed once by page 197.
But poor Victoria? Not so much.
In fact, of the two "boys" she dated after the gay guy, we were informed IN A PARAGRAPH that she "lost her virginity" to one, but DS doesn't quite tell us if this guy was handsome, ordinary, or an alien from Mars.
We know nothing at all, as if it wasn't a significant event. Hello?? This was the first time a man validated a young woman with low-self esteem through sexual attention.
THIS. WOULD BE. HUGE.
And if it wasn't huge... then some guy asking for her email to ask her out wouldn't be.
All it boils down to is this: Steel doesn't understand her own heroine. She almost seems to view her as pathetic as her parents do, and for the same reasons. She gives her no real strength to speak of, despite her many accomplishments.
Only Victoria is not pathetic. She's not even really "fat." In a Danielle Steel Universe, where women survived the turbulent 60s, rape, abuse, almost every modern war and the Titanic sinking, Victoria's main problem to overcome? The fact she's just a bit bigger than her "perfect" family, gaining and losing the same 20 or so pounds over and over again.
Had Steel plumbed the depths a little more in Victoria's high school and college years, some of these major flaws could have been fixed because Victoria HERSELF would have been fixed. She remains a victim, and weak, for most of the narrative. Ms. Steel may feel that being big in a slender-loving world is a tragic plot for her heroine to overcome, but that only skims the surface of what plus-size women experience in a lifetime, especially when it comes to romance.
Yes, there is a lot of criticism, but it isn't ONLY criticism. And yes, many men are not sexually attracted to "big girls" but a good many *are.* It really doesn't take a lot of work to find them. I managed a long list of supportive friends and attentive lovers and I was way bigger than Victoria. So I find it highly implausible that, by the age of 23, Victoria hadn't found one legitimate relationship to challenge the damage her parents did to her, especially since she had the balls to move across the country all by her lonesome to chase a forbidden dream.
Yet, thanks to the infernal glossing over of all these experiences, we never got to see ANY of that. There were roughly 20K people at Northwestern alone to challenge this false assumption, yet there were no teachers, no friends, no boyfriends... no one "normal" could see her or did see her for what she really was, to show her that her family's disapproval was misplaced.
Not one significant relationship emerged from this glossed over era in our heroine's life, especially in the area of sexual growth. Which indicates that Steel either doesn't think big girls deserve romance or doesn't know how to write it because she doesn't think the same rules apply. (Hint: They do.)
Victoria crosses paths with thousands upon thousands of people, in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, but Steel reinforces this same tired stereotype that being big equals being alone by keeping her - wait for it - ALONE.
This indicates to me one glaring, unforgivable conclusion:
Danielle Steel HERSELF believed fat to be Victoria's fatal flaw, making her own romance heroine "undateable" and "un-romanceable" for a good chunk of her story.
As a "big" girl, I found this disrespectful and condescending.
If you are looking to read a story about a plus-size heroine, I would definitely recommend you look elsewhere. There are plenty of writers who understand these experiences, have lived these experiences, and can write - realistically - about what it is like to find love and acceptance no matter what size you happen to be.
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