Thursday, May 19, 2011

Self-Pity, Party of One: A Review of Jackie Morse Kessler's Hunger

Title: Hunger
Author: Jackie Morse Kessler
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010)
Pages: 174
How I Came By This Book: The other day at work I was given the insanely awesome task of taking care of all of our new acquisitions. That meant me and a huge four-tiered cart of books with that new car smell. One of them was Kessler's follow-up to Hunger, entitled Rage, which I will be reading and reviewing as well. Anyway, I saw that we had this book as well and, as I had seen it on a few other blogs, some giving it good reviews while others really disliked it, I thought I'd give the book a try. So I borrowed both books and here we are.
Challenges: Good Reads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: Lisabeth Lewis has a black steed, a set of scales, and a new job: she's been appointed Famine. How will an anorexic seventeen-year-old girl from the suburbs fare as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?

Traveling the world on her steed gives Lisa freedom from her troubles at home--her constant battle with hunger and the struggle to hide it from the people who care about her. But being Famine forces her to go places where hunger is a painful part of everyday life and to face the horrifying effects of her awesome new power. Can Lisa find a way to harness that power--and the courage to fight her own inner demons?

Jackie Morse Kessler

Review: Okay, so I know that as a guy I'm not really expected to identify with a female main character and that as someone who has never suffered an eating disorder I can't really sympathize with her either. But that doesn't mean that I should find her completely obnoxious.

From the first page of this book, I was both intrigued and annoyed. Intrigued because, let's face it, the premise behind the book is kind of cool and I was hoping for a good-old fantasy adventure featuring the deeds (or misdeeds) of the mythical Four Horsemen. I was annoyed because Lisa (I refuse to call her Lisabeth; that's not even a name) was such a thoroughly unlikeable character. She was rude, self-pitying, and entirely too absorbed with herself, even for someone with an eating disorder. I found the discussions she had with her "Thin voice" (the girl in her head who told her she was too fat, not good enough, etc.) to be repetitive and her attitude toward her friends to be reprehensible.

Now, before you jump down my throat about bashing a character with an eating disorder, let me explain why I feel that her eating disorder isn't even justified: because the author doesn't give a whole lot of background or character history or anything. Sure there's some sort of vague "my mom's mean to me and not around" thing, but even that's not explored fully. What do you expect from a book under two-hundred pages?

From the small flashback that the author uses as a justification for Lisa's anorexia, it seems as if it just sort of started one day after she got a weird look from some popular girls. To me, this seems to almost be mocking eating disorders, even if the author does claim to have suffered from one for a short period of time. From what I understand from friends and family who have battled with anorexia, bulimia, etc., there are multiple, complex issues that lead to an eating disorder. Granted, I don't know a whole lot on the topic, but it was like Kessler was grasping for a reason and just decided, "Hmm, yeah, teens are really shallow and only care about  what other people think of them. Good enough for me." Not very nice, Jackie.

Furthermore, Tammy, the bulimic "best friend" and enabler, feels inauthentic. Not in terms of her eating disorder, but as a character in general. The dialogue scenes between her and Lisa are stilted at best and feel way too fake and forced. Also, everyone in Lisa's life seems to really dislike this girl, but no one ever comes out and says why. Other than Suzanne, Lisa's "ex-best friend" (who only attained that status by telling her the truth--that Lisa's an anorexic), no one seems to notice that there's something wrong with Lisa. If my kid had a friend who was bulimic, I'd be worried about the influence she had on my daughter. But this doesn't seem to be the case. No one seems to know that Tammy is bulimic and therefore I cannot figure out for the life of me why everyone turns up their nose whenever Lisa mentions her. Kessler never explains this.

Most of the rest of the characters--Suzanne, Lisa's boyfriend (James), her parents--were really flat and boring. There was no real depth to their relationships with each other either. It was like these were cardboard cut-outs of people. This may be because Kessler wasted all of that depth on the other Horsemen, who stood out above all the rest even if they didn't show up very often. War and Pestilence were interesting characters but, unfortunately, you never find out anything about them. In fact, they, and the other characters, are never really physically described. Not even Lisa! Kessler seems to do an okay job of writing in general--it's not great but it's not atrocious, either--but she cannot describe things to save her life.

Except for Death. I've already mentioned on this blog that I love reading about the anthropomorphic personification of Death. Kessler's Death is no exception, especially because he resembles none other than:

That's right, Death looks like Kurt Cobain. He even plays guitar and sings Nirvana songs. It's not as cheesy as it sounds. In fact, he's the only character in the book that has any real depth and is really the only likable character. He steals the show, so to speak. He was actually the only reason I kept reading the book and is why I'm going to read the second book in the series despite being so disappointed with the first.

In terms of plot, there's not a whole lot going on. Half of the book is whining/feeling sorry for herself/complaining/hating other people for trying to tell her that she's anorexic, one-quarter of the book is Lisa not quite knowing to do with herself now that she's Famine, and the rest is a rather bland series of events showing her work as a Horsemen, including the unrealistic rivalry between her and War, who seems to only be a jerk because she's fat and likes to kill things. There's no real development of the Horsemen plotline, which is sad because I wanted to see more of Pestilence and there was far too little of Lisa using her new powers.

It was also a little confusing because it seemed that for some reason it started out that she and Famine were one-and-the-same but that later in the book they were two different people sharing the same body, sort of like a Tok'ra or Goa'uld symbiote on Stargate SG-1. Actually, more like a Tok'ra* than a Goa'uld because they shared the body equally rather than Famine taking over and making her do things. I don't know what was up with that (and I know a lot of you won't get the reference but I couldn't think of a different one) but it didn't help the book any, that's for sure.

It had it's moments (mostly involving Death), but I just wasn't impressed. I feel that less than 200 pages is not enough for the story that Kessler seemed to want to tell. Or, at least, the story that she should have told. This book needed less whining, less focusing on Lisa's anorexia, and more time spent on horseback being Famine. It also needed more realistic dialogue, better exploration of characters and their relationships, and a lot more description of things. I don't know if she was purposely leaving these characters as blank slates, perhaps in a bid to get readers to identify with them, but it just annoyed me to no end.

There was very little I liked about this book, but it was surprisingly free of editing/grammar/spelling errors, so I can't in good conscience give it a two. So, in the spirit of fairness, I'm giving it a three. Without Death being so cool, it wouldn't have received over a 2.5 but he gives it a little something extra. I probably won't ever reread this book, but I will check out the others in the series, just to see if they get any better.


*NOTE: A Tok'ra is a parasitic snake-looking creature that can only survive by taking over a human host. It attaches itself to the base of the brain and both the Tokra and the human can use the human's body for talking, eating, movement, etc. Both the symbiote and the host are conscious but only one can be in control of the body at any given time. Hope this helps to clear up the analogy I used.

A symbiote


  1. Nice review, I too had been seeing a lot of reviews on this novel and wondered about adding to my list, However, some young girls anorexia does begin with them observing other girls whom they think looks better than they are especially if its a young lady that lacks friends. Appearance is such a stronghold for young teens and most females care very much about what other girls think of them, it is scary at times. When i worked as a social worker in a high school, I learned and saw first hand the negative influence 'appearance' reflected on young ladies that i set out to start a mentoring program. Successfully there were eight placed in the school system high schools. a few H.S. placed my mentoring program within their existing health program taken with physical education.
    I enjoyed reading your review.

  2. Thanks, Sidne!

    I guess I should clarify what I meant. I know full well what peer pressure, the push to be popular, and the influence of others can do to a teenage girl. My issue was that Kessler seemed to gloss over the reasons behind Lisa's eating disorder. She spent so much time focusing on its effects but not enough looking at the causes. It was yet another symptom of Kessler's inability to create a believable, well-planned character history.