Melissa Broder’s previous books are so dear to me that when I heard she was releasing a new novel I felt both skin-tingling excitement and gut-deep trepidation. What if it’s shit? Was my first, ungenerous thought. What if, after a white-hot essay collection (So Sad Today) and the weirdest, most moving erotica I’ve ever read (The Pisces), her next book is a dud? It was possible. Because surely you can’t always deliver, as a writer. You can’t always be that great. Well it turns out, if you’re Melissa Broder, you can.
Central to Broder’s writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is sexuality, desire, and selfhood. She’s interested in our most unguarded sexual selves: what those people look like when unfiltered and unobserved. What we’re thinking at 2am in the morning; what we won’t even admit to ourselves. She’s interested in why we want what we want, and how we go about getting it (or, conversely, avoiding it). Broder writes about complex desire: our urgings wrapped up in shame or denial. Where and when, Broder seems to ask, do we learn such debilitating shame?
In Milk Fed, Rachel, a lapsed Jew, struggles with disordered eating. Obsessively counting calories and regulating her food intake rules her days, her hours. Eating, for Rachel, is ritualistic: she eats the same things at the same times in the same places. It is a way of exerting control. Broder delves deep into the origins of Rachel’s neuroses in the novel, locating its seed in the fatphobia instilled in her by her mother during childhood. Mothers, conditional love, and sustenance are themes in the novel that Broder handles with insight and humour.
Rachel’s eating regimen is disrupted when a new person, Miriam, starts work at the Yoghurt joint Rachel frequents. Miriam – attractive, fat Miriam; an Orthodox Jew – insists on loading up Rachel’s cup of natural yoghurt with calorific toppings she didn’t order. It is almost too much for Rachel, who battles her desire to indulge with her need to control. Miriam, who takes pride in her sundae creations, pushes her to try more and more extravagant desserts. The two women exchange pleasantries, then conversation, then outings together, and soon sexual desire blooms between them. As their relationship develops, the two women must confront a new set of challenges: homophobia and religion.
I highly recommend all three of Melissa Broder’s books to those who have not encountered her before, particularly to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh and Rachel Kushner. I would begin with Milk Fed, then So Sad Today, and then The Pisces. As I’ve suggested above, however, Broder doesn’t shy away from explicit sexual writing: she is more than happy writing about fetishes and fantasies and Freudian mother/daughter relationships. For this reason, she may not be to everyone’s taste. But even that squeamishness (the ‘not to everyone’s taste’ discomfort) forms part of Broder’s interest area. By which I mean that she often seems to be asking the reader, ‘why does that make you so uncomfortable? Let’s examine that.’ Perhaps that’s why the psychologist in Milk Fed, albeit a minor character, is so compelling: she’s kind of like Broder herself. Asking tough questions. Getting you to examine your inner, most vulnerable self, and urging you not to look away.
Reviewed by Charlotte. See more of Charlotte’s favourite reads here.