Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher

I’ve been reading a lot more young adult fiction lately, something which I will probably write about more at length in the relatively near future. It seems to go in cycles for me; sometimes I read a lot of adult fiction, sometimes I read a lot of YA, sometimes I’m very focused on nonfiction. Right now, it’s been young adult which is appealing to me.

I picked this book up in the library and was almost turned off by the description. In fact, I thought, “I should read this so that I can take it apart and explain how problematic it is,” conveniently forgetting that authors usually don’t write the descriptions on the jackets. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, from the jacket copy, sounds like a cringeworthy depiction of disability, coping with abuse, and growing up.

It is none of these things. In fact, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a mighty fine book. It revolves around the story of Eric and Sarah, two kids who have been friends from a young age because they are both outcasts. Eric is marginalised by other students because he is fat, while Sarah has burn scars on her face and hands which cause other students to avoid her. Trouble starts when Sarah abruptly stops talking one day and is taken to a residential treatment facility.

Eric tries to figure out why she stopped talking while he also does a bit of maturing as he tries to navigate the world without his best friend; he talks about how the friends grew apart when he joined the swim team, and about the relationship he has with his friend Steve Ellerby, and he even falls in love and gets a girlfriend.

There were a lot of things about this book which I loved; Crutcher managed to create a disabled character who was not defined by her disability, although she was shaped by it. And he created a fat character who is also not defined by his fat, and also doesn’t magically become thin as part of his coming of age process. In fact, one of the things which I really dig about this story is that Eric is fat and fit; he describes himself as more toned since he started swimming, but he’s still fat, and a very good competitive swimmer. I think that’s kind of a slap in the face for a lot of readers who make assumptions about fat.

But there’s more to love about this book. I love the swim coach, who is an awesome woman. She is openly described as a feminist and she leads a class called “Contemporary American Thought” in which the characters have a variety of lively debates. The class is used as a vehicle to present various thoughts and ideas, and one of the most remarkable parts of the book is the discussion of abortion.

The class has a series of debates on abortion. Crutcher did a reasonably good job of presenting the anti-reproductive rights standpoint, but then he got into the nuance of the debate. And, ultimately, one of the characters comes forward saying that she has had an abortion. Given that even television these days has a hard time bringing itself to an abortion, it was really refreshing to see abortion handled in a YA novel.

Especially since the character who has an abortion is dating an extremely conservative kid who has very rigid religious beliefs; she talks about him referring to the abortion as a “mistake” and suggesting that he has credit with God so it’s ok to get an abortion, but at the same time he refuses to go into the clinic with her. One of the most sad parts of the book, for me, was reading her speech to the class in which she talks about crossing the picket line she used to walk in. This is something which happens more often than people realise.

Crutcher presented the conservative Christian character in a really interesting way. Rather than just making him an inflexible bigot, he got at why people become that way. Mark Brittain, the conservative character, has a lot of pressure to be perfect, from his family and from himself. And he’s only 17, so clearly he is heavily shaped by that pressure. Eventually he cracks under the pressure and attempts to commit suicide, and in the process he starts to explore the idea that maybe his beliefs are too restrictive, and that he’s hurting himself and others with them. He becomes a humanised character instead of a mockery or caricature.

He’s not the only religious character. Steve is the son of a preacher (who also comes up in the book), modeling a very different approach to Christianity and religion. I imagine that teens who have beliefs similar to Mark Brittain’s might have a hard time with this book, because it definitely has a liberal lean, but liberal teens might gain more empathy for such people by reading it, and teens with borderline conservative beliefs might find some things to explore and question in Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. There’s a nice balance between liberal and conservative theology and beliefs, with an avoidance of the most obvious stereotypes.

This book also deals with the consequences of childhood abuse, and, again, I think it’s presented in a really great way. As it turns out, Chris Crutcher works with abuse victims, which might explain why this part of the book felt pitch perfect in a lot of ways to me. One of the things I  liked was the stress on the fact that people who have experienced abuse have a hard time trusting, and how hard it can be to be a confidante of someone talking about abuse. Crutcher, of course, felt the need to include the “tell a trusted adult” moral object lesson, but as it turns out, Eric picked a pretty good adult to trust, and the book highlighted the fact that teens can have good judgment about people, despite popular beliefs.

All in all, I think this is a good read. There are a lot of issues covered from a lot of perspectives and I really like the characters.

2 Replies to “Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher”

  1. I. LOVE. Chris Crutcher. I need to reread this book. If you liked this, you should read Whale Talk, which has even more explorations of childhood abuse and disability, with a lot of stuff about racism as well. (And swimming. He likes sports.) It also has an incredibly powerful story of dealing with guilt when you’ve unwittingly done something horrible. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that part of the book.

  2. Gosh, I love Chris Crutcher, too. I bought his autobiography, King of the Mild West, and he is just about as interesting as any of his characters. I remember this book. It was sad and hopeful, all at once. notemily says he likes sports. Not sure he likes them so much as he understands how completely they are the axis around which small town life revolves.

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