“There were little gray clouds, here and there, like Alan’s writing, which was distracting him from his job, and Peter’s precocity, and my boredom with the home, and simply, I suppose growing older and fatter. In truth, of course, they weren’t little clouds at all. They were raging bloody crashing thunderstorms.”
Readers know that there are times when we feel the gravitational pull to return to writers who have special significance or those we’ve particularly enjoyed, and that brings me to Fay Weldon’s The Fat Woman’s Joke. This isn’t my favourite Weldon, but I love this book for its nasty humour and the way in which Weldon shows how food can both stabilize and destabilize a marriage.
The fat woman of the title is Esther Wells, a middle-aged woman, who when the book begins, has left her husband, ad executive Alan, and is living alone in a dingy basement flat. During the day she reads “science fictions novels. In the evenings she watched television. And she ate, and ate and drank and ate.”
This is the only proper holiday, she thought, that I have had in years, and then she thought, but this is not a holiday, this is my life until I die; and then she would eat a biscuit, or make a piece of toast, and melt some ready sliced cheese on top of it, remembering vaguely that the act of cooking had been almost as absorbing as the act of eating.
Phyllis, Esther’s friend, “invincibly lively and invincibly stupid,” comes to visit and is horrified to witness what she sees as her friend’s decline, but Esther, claiming that “Marriage is too strong an institution,” is perfectly happy where she is.
Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that’s all. There are no complications. But husbands, children-no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them.
Since Phyllis urges Esther to return to her family home, Esther, thinking that Phyllis is deluded in her vision of family unity, and for accepting whatever behaviour her serial philanderer husband Gerry, doles out, decides to tell her story.
If there is a beginning to the breakdown of Esther and Alan’s marriage, it began, at least noticeably, during a dinner at Phyllis and Gerry’s house. Skinny Phyllis is a notoriously bad cook whereas plump Esther is a culinary whiz. Everyone pretends the meal is wonderful, and then dangerous undercurrents enter the conversation. Phyllis and Gerry’s relationship is obviously strained, and Phyllis, whose husband takes sneak peeks at Esther’s plump thighs, warns her guests that “discontent is catching.” That lines makes me think of the Woody Allen film, Husbands and Wives. The upshot of the evening is that Esther and Alan leave an evening of uncomfortable conversation with the decision that they are going to go on a diet.
Unfortunately, Alan and Esther’s lives revolve around food, and Esther isn’t as committed to the diet as her husband. When Alan goes to work hungry, suddenly he begins to notice his young temporary secretary, hobby painter, Susan who sets out to seduce Alan. Although Susan doesn’t know Alan’s wife, Esther, she hates her from afar, partly for her domestic complacency:
I don’t think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive.
Esther’s story unfolds with asides from Susan, and also with Phyllis supposedly trying to ‘help’ patch up her friend’s marriage. The Fat Woman’s Joke contains many of Fay Weldon’s themes: female body image, female roles (the good cook, the good wife and mother), the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ the vulnerability of men to flattery, and the minefields of male/female relationships. The young women in the story, Susan and her friend, Brenda, are confident that life will be better for them, that they won’t end up like the Esthers of this world, but Esther has passed her youth, and knows that “equating prettiness with sexuality and sexuality with happiness,” is a very “debased view of femininity,” and while it’s “excusable in a sixteen year old,” a middle aged woman should know better. Esther knows that an aging woman’s “future is not green pastures, but the glue factory.”
Fay Weldon’s novels are not full of subtle, dainty undercurrents, and that’s not a criticism. Her aim seems to be to pull the male/female and female/female dynamic out from under the floorboards and expose it for what it really is. WAR. The conversations occasionally appear to be over the top, so we see Weldon’s characters having conversations that might not quite occur in real life, but are nonetheless the stripped down thoughts that we don’t articulate. This is the facet of Weldon novels that make them so funny–the messes these people make of their lives are comical even though we may know people who have done exactly the same things with tragic results. Ultimately, Fay Weldon is an author whose incredibly sharp wisdom has enriched my reading life immensely.
“One wonders which came first,” she said brightly,” the mistress or the female whine. It would be interesting to do a study.”