Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
This is one of my reviews for the Banned Book Challenge. Go to the main post on StephSuReads' site here and my post discussing the challenge here.
Such superlatives as "riveting" and "powerful" can only hint at the craftsmanship on display in this transcendent story of love, loyalty and courage. While probing such issues as friendship, free speech and moral values, Crutcher ( Chinese Handcuffs ; Stotan! ) tells a tale whose mordant humor, poignancy and suspense pack a breathtaking wallop. A social outcast in junior high due to his excessive weight, narrator Eric Calhoune found a kindred spirit in Sarah Byrnes, whose face and hands were hideously disfigured in a childhood accident. Now a senior and considerably slimmed down through competitive swimming (though still aptly called "Moby"), Eric remains fiercely devoted to his friend, whose caustic tongue is her only protection from life's inequities. When Sarah abruptly stops talking and is committed to a mental ward, Eric is compelled to take action to help her, but quickly finds that he is in over his head. He risks their friendship by breaking his vow of secrecy and enlisting others' aid--help that comes from such unlikely quarters as a former bully, Eric's swim coach and, most surprisingly, his mother's seemingly wimpy boyfriend. A subplot centering on a self-righteous teammate drives home the point that nothing is as it appears on the surface, and leads to Eric being caught between his menacing vice-principal and the even more malevolent Mr. Byrnes--with spine-tingling results. Superb plotting, extraordinary characters and crackling narrative make this novel one to be devoured in a single unforgettable sitting. (courtesy of Amazon)
Eric "Moby" Calhoune has spent most of his life hiding: beneath layers of fat and behind the caustic words of his friend Sarah Byrnes. But now Eric is a slim, fit swimmer and Sarah Byrnes has fallen silent. Eric feels that only he can get to the root of her problems and save her.
Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes irritated me at first. There are two types of controversial books, those that introduce difficult topics as part of the plot and those that beat you over the head with the topics for no other reason than being controversial. The beginning of this book resembled the latter. We get debates on religion and abortion through Eric's Contemporary American Thought class. The points are thoughtful, but also seem designed to anger as many people as possible. Some of the characters seem like stereotypes - you have your inflexible, hardline evangelical Christian student and your equally inflexible, mean assistant principal. I also thought the depiction of Dale Thornton, a poor bully that is an odd friend of Sarah and Eric's, was odd. You don't find many residents of Spokane, WA with accents belonging in Appalachian hill country. But as the book goes on, the controversial topics do get absorbed into the plot, and the stereotypical characters are revealed to have more three-dimensional characters.
I love how there are numerous positive adults in this book. Eric is extremely close to his swim coach and CAT teacher Mrs. Lemry. He also trusts and likes his mother and her boyfriend. It's rare in YA literature to have so many adults that the teen protagonist can and does rely upon. Of course, there are several very negative portrayals of adults as well: Mr. Byrnes and Maust, the vice-principal. I like seeing a mixture of good and bad adults in a plot. It makes it seem more realistic.
Two things ultimately make this book enjoyable: Eric and the plot. Eric is a great character. He is a nice boy. He has his moments of self-doubt, but swimming has built a self-confidence that he lacked only a few years before. He is brave and loyal - sticking by Sarah Byrnes when no one else does and not giving in to her attempts to exclude him. But he's also flawed - purposely baiting Mark Brittain because he doesn't like him and knows he can raise the boy's hackles. He seems like a real teenager.
The plot really gets going about a third of the way through the novel. The beginning gets bogged down with back-story and didactics. But we soon learn more why Sarah Byrnes has fallen silent and travel with Eric as he attempts to bring her back to life. We also get bits of other parts of Eric's life - swimming, girls, friendship, and more. All in all, it's an enjoyable, sad, terrifying, funny, gut-wrenching, realistic read.
Rating: 4 / 5