Recent discourse about body image has aimed to empower women who don’t fit the mold of svelte beauty. But in her insightful debut novel, Mona Awad doesn’t try on positivity maxims like “Big is beautiful” or “Weight is just a number.” Instead, she explores how living in a body you loathe can be misery.
Awad’s Lizzie is an overweight teen who loves vampires, fairy tales and David Lynch movies. Over the course of a decade, she loses half her body weight–and all her interests outside of diet and exercise, not to mention most of her friendships. The title is a nod to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” in which he wrote about “the beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” Replace beauty with pain and you have a summary of Lizzie’s social interactions: when other girls aren’t taking digs at her (“You’re very salady,” one judges while she diets), she’s flinging them back (“Must make you hungry,” Lizzie says to a zaftig salon worker rubbing yogurt on her arms). Fatness is a state of mind, and in Lizzie’s world, the girls who live there can’t stop quietly torturing their own kind.
Before all the hours of cardio, the dinners of grains, the awful relationships and the dressing-room visits that end in tears, teenage Lizzie makes a promise to herself: “Later on I’m going to be really f-cking beautiful … I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.” A hell, indeed. And Awad’s sensitive, unflinching depiction of it is a valuable addition to the canon of American womanhood.
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.