Sweets for my sweet

It's no secret that I love Emmy Laybourne's work.  She hooked me with Monument 14 and never let me go.  I jumped on the chance to get an ARC of Sweet, her newest novel, which is very different from Monument 14 in some respects, but I gobbled it right up.

In the afterword, Laybourne says that she was inspired by b-movies, and I can see that in the work.  It's a clever way of writing a book that addresses body acceptance issues--instead of a long meditation on fat acceptance, or the risk of sounding preachy, Laybourne gets her message across in a gory, smart, and slightly kooky way.  Just the way I like it.  In my early review on Goodreads, I called this a "fluffy thriller," which is sort of an oxymoron, but it fits.

Here's the dealio: this is a book you'll probably either love or hate--which to me, means it's a good book.  Any book worth its salt should elicit strong reactions from readers.  That means it hit a nerve.

Laurel's BFF Viv got her uber-rich dad to pay for both of them to be on a celebrity cruise--wait, actually it's a weight loss cruise promoting a new diet drug called Solu, and the cruise happens to have celebs on it.  Sort of c-list celebs from old TV shows or reality TV, but nonetheless: people who have been on TV.  Laurel doesn't fit in.  She likes wearing cowboy boots and playing classical music on her guitar.  Yeah, she's a little overweight per society's standards, but it doesn't much bother her.  Laurel is cool with who she is, and I wish I could be her.

On the other hand, Viv has serious body image issues.  She could be me, or any other girl/woman in America.  She's seen how her dad reacts negatively to her mother's slight weight gain, and has thus embarked on a series of diets in order to be thin enough.

Acting as the Ryan Seacrest-in-training (he admits it himself, and hates it) is former child star Tom Fiorelli, AKA "Baby Tom-Tom."  Tom used to be chubby, but lost weight, made a series of horrible movies, and recently got totally played by pop star Bonnie Lee Finn.  "Hello, US Weekly!  Here are allll of Baby Tom-Tom's boyishly naive texts!  Where's the moolah?"  It's Hollywood, baby, and nobody's immune.  Laybourne has experience in the film industry so Tom's point of view and his struggles felt really authentic to me.  For the huddled masses (more like the jostling, foul-mouthed masses, but hey, it sounds better the other way, right?), celebrities are like candy: pretty and manufactured, on display for their enjoyment.  And really, who stops to think about what it's like for the gummi bear when you maul it with your molars?  Not many people.  Baby Tom-Tom is that gummi bear.

It all starts innocently enough, a bit like when your favorite TV show does a vacation special and they all go on a cruise (okay, since I don't watch TV I don't know if that happens or not, but I do know that when The Brady Bunch went to Hawaii and met Vincent Price in a cave I was in heaven).  There's your typical squeeing over luxuries and dressing up for dinner and awkward encounters with crushworthy dudes.  But this one's just a teensy-bit different: people aren't here just to have fun.  They're here to lose weight.  The desserts?  Made with Solu.  Drinks?  Sweetened with Solu.  Just don't go over the recommended dosage per day, mmkay? Remember what happened when people ate too many chips fried in Olestra?

Unfortunately, Laurel's discovered that she and boats don't mesh very well.  In fact, she gets pretty darn seasick.  So seasick that the sea makes her go sick all over her childhood crush, Tom Fiorelli.  I've made it 27 years through life and not thrown up on someone, a fact for which I am extremely grateful.  I cannot imagine puking my guts up on an actor.  Having a queasy stomach makes you not want to eat rich desserts, so Laurel picks at some bland food while the rest of the boat gets an exclusive first taste of Solu.

You guys know where this is going.  I knew where it was going, and it was ridiculously fun getting there.  Come on, loosen up.  Live a little!  It's cruise time, baby! (Note: the only experiences I have with cruises are this book and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Soooo, there you go.)

Tom Fiorelli, as it so happens, doesn't eat the Solu either.  He's super careful about what he puts into his body, and has a slight meathead complex when it comes to pumping it up.  When you grow up chubby and everyone watched you grow up chubby, you can totally get a complex.  By bringing Tom's anxieties about weight into the equation, readers see that (gasp!) it's not just girls who have hangups about their bodies.  It's not just girls who have disordered eating patterns.

Despite the puking and Tom's disastrous attempt at breakdancing (he sort of breakdances right on top of Laurel, and then kisses her at the urging of his publicist), the two end up as a really cute couple.  Did I just say that?  I don't generally like cute romance.  But Laurel is just so genuine and Tom really likes her just the way she is.  *cue song*

Meanwhile, the rest of the ship is losing weight, all right.  A lot of weight.  After just a day, Laurel notices that Viv actually looks smaller.  After two days, she's wearing tiny, tiny clothing.  Laurel realizes that something is seriously wrong, especially when the cruise hotshots start rationing the Solu.  And things get reallllllly nasty from there.  The Solu's in your sweat, the Solu's in your blood ... once you're a junkie, you'll do anything--anything--to get it.

This is where the b-movie horror lovingly jumps in.  The idea that people would attack others just to get at something in their blood is crazy, but at the same time, when you think about it, some people show that same sort of obsession when it comes to dieting or working out or plastic surgery or whatever.  It becomes an addiction.  They'll stop at nothing to get thin, and even when they're so thin they're dying, they keep restricting.  That's the illness.  That's the tragedy.  But that's what society has trained people to do.

The endgame with the Criminal Mastermind is a bit over the top, even for me, but it fits in with the whole theme of excess.  We eat to excess, we diet to excess, we crave power to excess, we exact revenge to excess.

And the ending?  Oh, the ending is perfection.  I actually gasped out loud and said, "NO!" but then a slow smile spread across my face, and I said, "Yesssss.  Perfect."

Just to get back to the body image theme a bit: I'm really happy that Laybourne addressed this.  Laurel accepts that genetics affect her body shape, and she'll never be super-duper supermodel thin.  She's okay with that.  She's got her guitar and her family and her friends ... why worry about chub?  There was a conversation between Laurel and Viv that really hit me hard (I have BDD and EDNOS (recovering) so I know the feelings all too well):

[Laurel] "I think that we look perfectly normal.  Why do we have to be thinner, thinner, thinner, all the time?"

"Because when people see this," Viv says, grabbing her belly, "they see weakness.  And I don't want to be seen as weak."

I hate to say this, but Emmy Laybourne totally nailed my disordered thoughts in that one exchange.  It's scary that your brain starts to think that way.  I scare myself, sometimes, especially because I know those thoughts are wrong.

And that's why I wish I was Laurel.  Or that Laurel were my best friend, so her body positivity would lift me up when I feel like a loser.

I didn't intend to gobble this up in one sitting, but I did.  It's as addictive as Solu, but with none of the deadly aftereffects!  It might not be everyone's cuppa, but it pushed all the right book buttons for me. I mean, deadly cruise + conspiracy + fluffy romance + vampirism?  Hello?  Yes, please, and thank you.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


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