No one would deny that Butter is fat.
He wouldn’t argue against it either. Butter knows. He knows, too, that he’s an outcast at his school and even with his parents because of that not-so-little number on the scale. It’s impossible to be ignored when you’re the biggest kid in school, but being fat makes Butter invisible anyway.
Over the last year, though, Butter has developed a strong relationship with Anna, who is one of the most popular girls at school. Except, she doesn’t know it’s Butter with whom she’s developed this friendship/near romance. Their relationship is all online, and Butter goes by a nickname on the internet so Anna has no idea with whom she’s really communicating. It’s through the protection of the computer that Butter feels comfortable being himself and opening himself up to her. He has nothing to hide. At least emotionally.
After a series of events that prove to Butter how little he is to the rest of the student body — including Anna — he decides he’s going to make a change. See, it’s been hard for Butter to fit in and gain acceptance not just because of his size, but because of how he reacted around a group of popular boys in the past who taunted him because of his size. In hopes of retaliation and in hopes of fitting in, he’s going to eat himself to death online for everybody to watch.
But as the day draws closer to when he’s to perform his act, everyone wants to know if Butter will really go through with it or not. That’s when the real question emerges: what will killing himself prove, if anything? And will it get him the sort of acceptance he wants in those final days or will he be simply making himself a bigger target of torment than he already is? Will it make Anna accept him as Butter or will she continue pretending he isn’t the guy she talks to online?
Erin Jade Lange’s debut Butter is one of the best explorations of weight in YA I have ever read. Everything Butter experiences is painful, and he is completely aware of his own problem. Neither the character nor the story exploit the weight issue to make it a Weight Issue; rather, we’re allowed to experience humiliation and frustration right along with the main character, and we’re forced to see why he chooses to behave in the manner he does. This doesn’t excuse it nor does it make it more acceptable — the entire concept of live casting your death by eating in excess for audience viewing is horrific — but as readers, we understand the desperation Butter feels in wanting to be accepted for who he is. A fat kid. There aren’t cut and dry answers about what weight should or shouldn’t be in this story. Rather, we’re offered a character who is fat, and that physical attribute of him has become Who He Is, rather than any of his personality or heart.
The bigger issue undercutting all of the book is that of bullying, including online bullying. Although the bulk of Butter’s school experience has been one of mostly being ignored, that wasn’t always the case. When he stands up for himself and chooses he to go public with his eating-to-death plan, he’s suddenly finding himself gaining attention of the popular crowd. But it’s not necessarily because they want to befriend Butter. Rather, they’re subtly bullying him by forcing him outside of his comfort zone in a threatening, rather than supportive and encouraging, manner. They’re using Butter’s fearlessness toward death as their opportunity to get one last jab in at him, even if he’s not entirely aware that is the case. Then there’s Anna: despite learning the truth about the boy for whom she has fallen hard, she refuses to accept Butter as himself. She’s angry that he lied to her and pretended to be someone who he wasn’t.
Of course, he wasn’t doing that. At least, he doesn’t think that’s what he was doing.
What makes Butter stand out is that there are absolutely no clear cut good and bad sides in the story. While we’re sympathetic toward Butter and Anna, as well as even the popular boys and Butter’s former best friend Tucker, we can’t make solid decisions on whether they’re necessarily good characters or not. It’s also unclear whether or not they’re likable — as much as I wanted to like Butter, I found myself feeling much more sympathy for him that feeling like he was likable. But that doesn’t mean he was entirely unlikeable, either. Lang has created characters who fall into both categories and who make choices that fall into both categories, too. In doing so, the pacing of the story holds up, as does the tension. It’s never clear how things will play out because it’s never clear whether characters have the guts to go through with their plans. This has a great tempering of emotional highs with emotional lows. And of course it gets to the heart of the story, which is that no one is wholly who they act like and no one can ever truly know the whole of who we are. We all only share so much.
The knockout aspect of Butter was the voice — Lang nails it with Butter, and she’s not only able to successfully give us a great male narrator, but she does so without coming across as too emotional, despite the meaty topics at hand. Butter’s voice reminded me quite a bit of Jace’s voice in Swati Avasthi’s Split and even though they tackle different topics, this would make an excellent read alike to Avasthi’s book. Likewise, I think this book would have appeal to those who read and loved Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful or maybe even KL Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World. This book also reminded me quite a bit of KM Walton’s debut Cracked. Butter’s voice and experiences are going to resonate with many readers who themselves feel like outcasts or like they’re forgotten because of something out of their control. Likewise, the issue of bullying is timely and in particular, online bullying and the notion of online life and reputation are relevant and pertinent. While this book isn’t necessarily funny, Butter’s voice is thoughtful and the tough topics are handled in a way that won’t necessarily leave readers uncomfortable (though it will at times make them feel that way, it is not overwhelming or destructive to the narrative or the characters).
As much as I thought the characters in the story were well-developed and that the pacing and tension were on, I felt like the book became a bit message-y and heavy-handed at times and particularly at the end. It’s not cool to make fun of someone for their physical appearance, and it’s not cool to be a bully. It’s also not cool to pretend to be who you aren’t, and it’s not okay to give up everything when you have an opportunity to change it. I felt like some of those message-y aspects could have been pulled back a tiny bit because Butter’s voice and the story he lives through would make those things stand much stronger on their own. These didn’t ruin his voice or the story itself, but they didn’t allow them to shine with the intensity that they could have.
Lang’s writing in the book is great, and I am eager to see where she takes her sophomore novel — a book which will also tackle the issue of bullying. Butter is available today.
Review copy received from the publisher.