Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
What is Milk Fed, a new novel by Melissa Broder, about? It’s about many things…
It’s about individuation. It’s about a Jewish woman in her early twenties trying to manage, no – cope with, no—overcome her relationship with her mother. Her mother is in some ways only superficially interested in Rachel’s life, except when it comes to food, and boy, has her mother given this daughter one giant eating disorder. From the age of six, she was comparing her to other, thinner, girls her age and warning her against the greatest of all possible sins: becoming chubby. As a result, when we meet Rachel, she has a relationship with food that is more about deprivation than it is about enjoyment, and to call her a calorie counter would be a huge understatement.
Her therapist (because of course there’s a therapist) recommends detox by means of cutting of communication with her mother. Clearly she desperately needs help coping with this toxic relationship. And meanwhile, she’s living in LA and working in the film business, so she is surrounded by a body-conscious culture where a woman displaying an appetite is a charming anomaly.
And then there is the temptress with the frozen yogurt: the zaftig, pure, lovely, orthodox Miriam. And there’s also the golem.
You see why I’m overwhelmed? There’s a lot going on here. There’s curvaceous clay figure that Rachel’s therapist encourages her to make and that represents the body Rachel fears and desires and which becomes a stand in for the golem (I offer you the Wikipedia definition: “A golem is an animated anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore that is created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud”). And then there’s the real-life full-bodied Miriam, whom Rachel greatly sexually desires. And there are other objects of desire as well: a film star, an office mate. And plenty of detail about what Rachel eats and doesn’t eat (and I’m not just talking about food).
All of this is an oversimplification of a complex book; I’m just trying to get at the core of what it is. I think it stands among other significant books by contemporary American Jewish women writers in that it grapples with the particularities of the Jewish mother/daughter relationship (and throw in the golem and a bit of hand-wringing over Israeli politics). It’s also a coming-of-age novel. It’s also a very sexy book, by which I mean it contains a lot of very vividly described sex. And it’s funny. Rachel is a wannabe stand up comic, and you can’t write about that without being funny, which this author is. Wryly observant may be a better way to describe it.
I’ve struggled with writing about this book. I admired so much about it, and enjoyed reading much of it, but parts of it made me uncomfortable – for example, her constant and obsessive chronicling of food. But then again, that was the point of the story. But since I haven’t been able to fully articulate my discomfort with the book, I’ll close by linking to a review that I think says it much better than I can or did — see the review in The New York Times HERE.
One last comment… given the character’s great interest in breasts and her issues with her mother, it’s a great title. And I love the cover art. It didn’t hit me right away that it’s a boob, but there it is.