I’m prefacing my review of Empty with a reminder about how weight issues in YA tend to be dealt with in a way that’s problematic. The fat body, in particular, is an easy target. It’s there. It can be seen. Unfortunately, this take on the fat girl story falls exceedingly flat. I warn that I’m going to spoil significant plot points in this review because I need to.
At 286 pounds and size 24, Dell is fat. And frankly, that’s all she is. She’s not a person. She’s meaningless except for being the fat girl, and everyone knows it. Her mom regularly berates her for her clothes no longer fitting, despite grandma just buying her all kinds of new things. Dell’s forced to quit the softball team because she can’t move her fat body fast enough to be an asset to the team. Dell can’t get a job at the local daycare when she needs to help her mom make money because, well, the daycare owner thought that with the space being “a little tight,” Dell might not be comfortable.
Blocked because she’s fat.
Dell’s parents just divorced. Her father was caught cheating on her mother, and the marriage falls apart. No longer are Dell, her little sister Meggie, and her parents under one roof. Now dad has moved out with the girlfriend (to whom he’ll be marrying later on in the story), and Dell’s mom has to move her and Meggie into a smaller apartment in a crummy part of town. To comfort herself from the divorce and from the terrible living situation — they’re paycheck to paycheck now — Dell takes to eating in the same way her mother takes to consuming prescription drugs. Convenient she works at the pharmacy as one of her jobs to keep the habit going.
As Dell continues to eat, she continues to get fatter and fatter. As readers, we’re reminded how fat she is constantly. We aren’t given feelings. We’re given fat. Dell’s only got one friend, Cara, and she’s convinced Cara doesn’t like her much. Since we don’t know the truth, since we’re blocked out by Dell’s constant fat talk, we can’t know whether or not Cara really does like her. Cara teases her, but Cara does seem to care on some level. More than that, though, Dell finds herself the butt of the joke at school. People tease her for being fat. And it’s not just teasing. Dell is asked to assume a sumo squat and moo like a cow for the amusement of her classmates.
She does it whenever they ask.
It gets worse when Cara drags Dell to a party, though. Dell’s escorted to an upstairs bedroom by Brandon, a boy who she thinks is cute. He wants to show her a video on YouTube. It’s a video of a sumo wrestler (of course). Isn’t that what all boys do at parties? They drag the fat girl upstairs to show her videos of sumo wrestlers alone? Of course not. From there, Brandon begins to take off Dell’s clothes and grabs at her body. Dell, shocked and horrified about what’s happening to her, can’t speak up though. She’s too fat. She is literally choked out by her fat. She cannot say no. Well, maybe she said no. She’s not sure because her fat body is stopping her from thinking about whether or not she did. This is a traumatic scene in the book — Dell is raped. But the problem is that despite being raped, this plot line falls out of the story.
Not everything is awful in Dell’s world, despite the way it sounds. She’s got a marvelous singing voice, and Cara encourages her to sign up for the talent show (again, where it’s unclear whether or not Cara likes Dell or not — she really wants Dell to show off her amazing voice). Enough persuasion gets Dell to sign up. But she’s not encouraged about it. She’ll have to find something to wear, and it’s impossible for a fat girl to find good looking clothes. Especially if it means shopping with skinny Cara.
Then the day comes where she’s going to perform. She’s just hurt her foot, and she’s limping. The pain is out of control for her, from the foot and mostly from being fat. So before the show, Dell takes some vicodin her mother had. She begins feeling loopy, and despite that, she still performs. It’s not the greatest performance, but it’s done and it’s good enough. The school claps and cheers her on.
Until someone from the crowd tells her to do the sumo cow thing. And she does, right there on stage. Embarrassed, Dell leaves soon after, making her way home (but not before peeing her pants and explaining how this was, for once, a time it was good to be fat because of the absorption factor of big-size pants). It’s at this moment when Dell decides that between her father’s remarriage, her mother losing her job and her battle with addiction, and mostly her being fat, she can no longer stand living.
She’s going to kill herself.
Not going to. She does. Dell dies in the book, after driving back to school and overdosing inside. She left a suicide note so everyone knew.
Empty is never once about Dell. It’s never once about the pain of parental divorce nor about the trauma of being a rape survivor. It’s never about bullying. It’s about Dell’s fat body. That fat body is why she is who she is. It’s why she’s bullied. It’s why she is teased at home. It’s why she’s raped. Because she is fat. That’s it. Fat.
Never is this an excuse for what happens to her, but it is and becomes a continued excuse when Dell’s body is literally the sacrifice for the story.
I’m not unrealistic in thinking that bullying happens and no adult knows about it. But, the bullying in this story came only at the expense of Dell’s fat body. In other words, it is all she is teased about and for and there’s nothing else to it. She also gives into it, further encouraging the bullies to act upon her fatness. Her fat is the tool for the message in this book, which is that bullying can lead to terrible consequences. As a reader, as someone who is fat, and as someone who has spent some time in high school (now and then), I find it impossible to believe one girl who is a size 24 — which isn’t all that huge — is the target of such ridicule for simply being fat. Where her own mother berates her for her size and for her poor eating choices, she does nothing to solve the problem. Mom works all the time, but mom also does the shopping. Mom knows what is in the house (Dell doesn’t sneak stuff here — it’s all in the fridge).
Then there’s the additional issue of the coach cutting Dell from the softball team without offering to help her work out further or get in shape. It was never clear whether her weight had been an issue in prior seasons. It was over and done in three pages at the start of the story. From what it seemed like, the weight came on quickly. Dell hadn’t always been fat. So, if that’s the case, why did no one actually suggest a plan here? Why did no one ask questions? Advocates existed in Dell’s life. I needed more back story to know why these advocates were failures or to explain that really, Dell didn’t have a soul to help her.
Not to mention the fact that Dell is raped and ridiculed for it because she is fat. There’s a fine line between feeling like there are lazy writing choices and victim blaming. I don’t think Dell is anything but a victim in the book, but what happens when her body is the subject of the story entirely, it’s challenging to then feel the horror for Dell in this situation. Because there is no Dell. There is Dell’s body, and what happens to it is awful and shameful. But being choked out by her own fat flesh means we readers don’t understand the consequences and pain she endures internally for this. Because what’s inside Dell doesn’t exist.
She’s just fat. Or as Brandon and his girlfriend (who perpetuates the rumor Dell raped Brandon) call her, “the fat bitch.”
Fatness is sensationalized repeatedly. The acts of eating are, too. The way ice cream drips down Dell’s chin is in strong detail. We hear about the cheese puffs and how much she eats because they make her feel good inside. But when it comes to hearing what it is Dell likes outside food — her sister, Meggie — all we ever hear is how much Dell likes her. How she “breathes her in,” a line that was repeated every time Meggie and Dell were together. In other words, this wasn’t about Dell. It was about her body. The choice in details, in descriptions, further bang the point that fatness is the issue. It’s the driving force in the story.
It’s the only story.
Walton’s sophomore effort is an incredible disappointment following what I thought was a good portrayal of bullying in Cracked. The message in this book is that bullying is bad. But that message only comes at the expense of Dell’s fat body. Where there were opportunities to develop a full character, one with depth and pain, they were squandered in favor of reminding us of the 286 pound, size 24 fat girl. There’s not depth of character. There’s not depth to the plot. There’s a message and that’s all. Even the writing lacks substance.
And anyone who is fat can tell you, too, 286 pounds doesn’t make you a cartoon character. Despite the fact you shouldn’t compare yourself to a book character, you do. In this instance, the portrayal of the fat character came off as silly, rather than honest. Living in a fat body is just that — living in a fat body. It’s living, despite the body. It’s not the body living, despite you.
If you’re looking for a book that thoughtfully explores bullying as it relates to a fat person? Then check out Erin Jade Lange’s Butter. There is a fully realized character, as well as tension building (rather than simply an out at the end of the book). If you’re looking for a book about the effects of divorce on a character? Then go with Kody Keplinger’s great A Midsummer’s Nightmare. I’d still recommend Walton’s first book, Cracked, since it does offer two strong characters and the theme of bullying, but I have a hard time saying the sophomore novel is worthwhile. There are much better books tackling these issues and they do so without trivializing and sensationalizing fatness to deliver the message.
Empty is available now from Simon and Schuster. Review copy received from the publisher.