The Art of Starving is the debut novel from prolific short story writer Sam J. Miller and I’ve been looking forward to reading this since I found out he was publishing a novel. I absolutely love Miller’s short fiction, especially Calved, one of my favorite stories of all time. In The Art of Starving, we get a gritty first-person narrative of a young gay teenager’s struggle with an eating disorder(that he believes he doesn’t have). This is going to be a highly polarizing book for many people and hopefully, I can explain why I think that way.
The first thing that jumps out at you while reading this book is if starving yourself and getting super-heightened senses from not eating is really a good way to represent eating disorders to a young adult audience? A lot of kids fantasize about having magical powers and if anorexia gives our main character powers, is this not making it more tempting for teenagers to think positively about eating disorders? These are the questions that I had to grapple with the entire time while reading this book. In the end, I think this book has really clarified my views on the #OwnVoices debate. The point of the book is to show that “bad things will happen to you, some of it isn’t your fault, but other things will be your fault. Being Better is being able to tell the difference,”pg 343. This book is meant to be a difficult read. It is meant to have a viewpoint of a young man with an unbalanced viewpoint on his eating disorder, because real kids out there are having the same thoughts about themselves. Real kids think that their control over their eating makes them special, like they have powers, and Miller is saying, “Hey, we thought this way before, and we’ve screwed up. Let’s take responsibility for the destructive thoughts we have about ourselves and get better.” I do think there will be some readers that will find this book problematic, but Miller is giving us an honest portrayal of an eating disorder from the viewpoint of a gay man going through it, and in the midst of addiction, no one thinks logically, just like Matt.
Matt, our narrative eye, is constantly looking for validation from others. He thinks that his life is getting better when he meets his boyfriend Tariq, but in reality, he is still struggling with his addiction and putting all of his own happiness unto someone else. This is as much a story about a young man coming to grips with his own self-approval than anything else. When he finally comes to have a shred of love for himself, he realizes that love is the true form of where his powers come from. Not only does Matt come to this realization but his mother and sister, dealing with their own addictive personalities, see Matt getting better, and decide to make the choice to change their alcoholism and destructive behavior.
I liked this book, it really made me think about a lot of the conversations and debates about young adult fiction. Sam J. Miller is an excellent writer, that I will continue to read. I did think that the “turn around” portion at the end of the book was really rushed. I would have liked to have seen at least a little more of his recovery. There was an instance of ridiculousness towards the end of the book with Matt’s ultimate use of his powers but it didn’t bother me too much. I thought Matt’s relationship with Tariq at the end really worked for me. From a plot perspective, it is a very basic story, but I think that the writing made me think outside the story to other conversations about addiction and writing controversies.
17/25 Possible Score
3 – Plot
3 – Characters
3 – Setting/World Building
4 – Writing Style
4 – Heart & Mind Aspect