“Why did it feel so much safer to be wanted or needed than to be the one who wanted or needed?
I was terrified of being rejected. I didn’t want to be a loser. That was the word that came into my head whenever I ran the risk of caring about someone: loser. I couldn’t remember my mother ever saying it to me. It was something I must have come up with all by myself.”Milk Fed – Published by Scribner, February 2nd, 2021
Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.
Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.
Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy, Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we as humans can compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed, from one of our major writers on the psyche—both sacred and profane.
Verdict: Sharp prose, brilliant characterization, very very awkward.
This hurts a bit. I was so very sure I would love this (The Pisces is one of my all-time favourite books and I had been anticipating Broder’s second novel for what felt like ages) and while Broder’s writing is as sharp as ever and there is much to love, ultimately this did not always work for me. Where Lucy (the main character in The Pisces) is deeply unpleasant and unhappy but so witty and sharp that I could not help but root for her, here the main character, Rachel, is also prickly but before anything else deeply, deeply unhappy. She looks for acceptance in all the wrong places, trying to be somebody she is not in the hopes of finally finding somebody who unconditionally (or even conditionally) loves her.
For me, Broder’s biggest strength lies in drawing these women that feel real, with internal voices that are consistent and believable. Rachel feels like a complete person – and I felt for her. Her every moment is taken over by her eating disorder, her calorie counting, and her obsessive tendencies – and her aforementioned need to be loved by somebody. Her inner monologue is claustrophobic to the extreme, especially in the very first chapter when she outlines her daily routine. Rachel is without a plan for her life, except to stay as thin as humanly possible by any means necessary, and when she latches on to Miriam, an orthodox Jewish woman who works in the frozen joghurt shop Rachel frequents, the crush quickly becomes unhealthy and obsessive as well. The book was hard on my second hand embarassment and took me a lot longer to finish than it might have otherwise taken me.
All these are not objective criticisms of this book but rather reasons why I did not always enjoy my time with it. Ultimately, this is good and it seems unfair to measure any book against Broder’s debut which kickstarted my love affair with books about disaster women, but I could not help doing so and thus couldn’t love it the way I wanted to love it.
Content warnings: disordered eating, calorie counting, vomit, binge eating, homophobia, self harm, addiction, suicidal ideation, parental abuse
I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.