Traci's Reviews > What's Eating Gilbert Grape

What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges
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Apr 15, 10

bookshelves: novels, 52-books-in-52-weeks
Read from April 12 to 15, 2010

Thoughts I had about What's Eating Gilbert Grape while substitute teaching for a high school math class:

* The narration is very much inside Gilbert's head, but not at all inside his heart.

* He has a similar relationship to the town of Endora, his house, and his family: He wants to protect them, while simultaneously hating and desiring to be free of them. The town, the house, the family, these things are his; they belong to him (and he belongs to them), and he feels responsible for them. He wants to stop impersonal franchises like Food Land and Burger Barn from putting local businesses, like Lamson's Grocery, with which he is familiar, out of business--yet he can't, and even though these chain stores break up the imprisoning bubble of his-town-as-it's-always-been, it is also a destruction of the only place he has ever called home. Gilbert feels similarly conflicted about his house: On one hand, it is the place where his father committed suicide, the turning point at which the family began to dissolve. It is also a symbol of the ruin his family has become, and Momma, the enormously dense black hole (all-consuming, so massive she is even making a point of destruction where she sits, as the floor caves under her weight) that draws everything toward herself, into her gravity--Amy, who is becoming fatter and more like her in appearance every day; Ellen, who is the spitting image of her when she was young; Arnie, for whom she is living; and Gilbert, who looks like her husband, the constant reminder of his suicide. Gilbert feels trapped by her gravity, but he also feels like he must take up his father's place as man of the household, an obligation he does not want, though he feels guilty and responsible when he doesn't fulfill it. He is protective of Arnie, resents his older siblings Larry and Janice for shirking the duty that has now fallen to him, and discusses family matters with Amy, who has become the acting woman of the house. He loves his family, but hates being responsible for them, and ends up resenting them.

* Becky is a strange character. Her main function is to pierce the bubble of Gilbert's reality in a way similar to Burger Barn, but she, unlike Burger Barn, is unique and beautiful. She is emotional and playful in a way that Gilbert won't allow himself to be; she is more self-aware than anyone he has ever met, and she, though young, knows who she is. This both attracts and frustrates Gilbert because he wants to be with her, but can't stand how she can point out the very things he's dissatisfied with. Becky is a catalyst; Gilbert needs her to transform, to grow up, but after she fulfills that function, he doesn't need her anymore, and neither does the story. (By the final scene, Gilbert isn't really thinking of her anymore; he is focusing on his family, his house, his responsibilities, and Becky barely registers in his consciousness.) She is an ambiguous presence fluttering into, out of, and around the story--she was there, in a way, even if she wasn't in the scene--but I understood her more as a function and less as a character, perhaps because that's what she was to Gilbert, not a person, but a beautiful creature (he asks if she's an angel) come down to Endora to shake things up.

* I liked this novel, but maybe I read it at the wrong time in my life, because it didn't resonate with me (with life or writing) in a way that my favorite books have always done, though it was certainly compelling reading. It also comes three and a half months into my read-a-book-a-week challenge, and I feel like I've been saturated with books by men about men, and even though What's Eating Gilbert Grape is enjoyable and well-written, I can't help being struck by how much of a man-book it is: man-narrator, man-body, man-perspective, man-story. I think what I mean is that it was good, just not personally transformative.
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Kelly This is totally one of my favorite books. :) I've been thinking about rereading it lately--it's so quirky and fun and, for me, nostalgic, since for some reason I read it like every month in high school, haha. Tell me what you think when you read it!


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