Rachel is a 20-something, non-practising Jewish woman working for a talent agency where most of the people around her suck. She’s weird and funny, occasionally doing stand-up routines full of black humour, but she doesn’t have any real friends. Her life is ruled by her obsession with controlling every calorie – in versus out.
Growing up, Rachel’s domineering mother was “the high priestess of food”, and as an adult her mother maintains this hold, via texts and phone calls. Rachel describes beautiful early childhood experiences with her Jewish grandparents, driving around New York eating at “all the old culinary haunts of our tribe”. Rachel would return home with a full heart and a fuller belly, only to be informed by her mother that nobody would love her if she stayed chubby.
Broder’s use of religious language to talk about food isn’t totally original, but it definitely works. Rachel has eating “rituals”, she “abstains”, and when she’s been “good” about all this behaviour, Rachel says, “I felt high on my sacrifice”. Fittingly, the novel is full of truly fantastic food writing. Nobody is as closely observant of food – its textures and colours and flavours and presentations – as a person who is obsessed with it. In Broder’s hands, frozen yoghurt really is elevated to a spiritual experience. Burritos are “warm babies swaddled up tight in blankets”.
The drive of the novel is Rachel’s growing affection for Miriam, the young woman she meets at the frozen yoghurt place near her work. Rachel describes Miriam’s body as “opulently corpulent”. Miriam comes from an Orthodox Jewish family, and the middle section of the book is a sweet time of their burgeoning companionship while, of course, Rachel wants more. Their first proper hangout, over dinner, is divine foreplay. Miriam is unselfconscious about her body and sees God in the abundance around them. Rachel starts eating again.
It is 2021 and readers are right to be suspicious of the oft-rehashed plotline in which a woman learns to love herself by someone else loving her fully. What saves Milk Fed from cliché is how damn sexy and freaky it is. Those who loved Broder’s first novel, The Pisces, will be delighted by Milk Fed.
The title alludes to a taboo that Rachel knowingly skirts. She always felt starved by her mother – of both love and food – and now when she masturbates it is often a very motherly woman who gives or takes pleasure. Craving romantic and maternal love, she sometimes seeks these two feelings from the same person. Rachel’s gradual transformation is both internal and external, and properly satisfying, as are most of the sex scenes. Enjoy!
Bloomsbury, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "Melissa Broder, Milk Fed ".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.