On its surface, How To Be Eaten — Maria Adelmann’s first novel, following her short story collection Girls Of A Certain Age — has two premises. One is a reimagining of classic fairytale characters and their stories. Another, a mordant sendup of The Bachelor (and reality television in general). Perhaps a lesser writer would have separated these premises into two separate books. Adelmann, instead, spins gold from both, weaving together two high-concept premises into one coherent and complex narrative that pulls off several impressive tricks along the way.
In How To Get Eaten, a group of women come together for a support group. Some of them you know — or at least think you do. There’s Gretel, a woman who, as a child, disappeared for three months with her brother, held captive by an old woman in a house made of candy. There’s Ruby, known better as Little Red, a nickname she never chose but was instead foisted upon her. She wears a coat made from the skin and fur of the wolf who assaulted and ate her as a kid. There’s Bernice, ex-wife of infamous wife killer Bluebeard, rendered here as an Elon Musk-like tech billionaire, one of the novel’s many smart modern twists on old lore.
The final two women in the five-person support group are Ashlee, recent winner of The One, aforementioned Bachelor parody. What is a reality dating competition show if not modern day mythmaking? And then there’s Raina, the “mom” of the group, always there to offer a tissue or snack from her Mary Poppins purse. She’s part of a classic fairytale, too, but I won’t spoil which it is, because there are several reveals throughout How To Be Eaten that truly satisfy, bolstered by good foreshadowing that makes me think this will be a re-read for me eventually.
Will, the group’s quiet and calm leader, has collected these women to help them heal. He draws them in with talk of narrative therapy, which he believes will free them of the things they can’t let go of and help them regain control of their own stories. As such, the book is divided into sections in which each woman has a chance to tell her story, the sections alternating between third person present tense when they’re from the point of telling of the support group and first person past tense when the women monologue about their tales. Breaking up these main sections are quick interstitials that start strange and get stranger, slowly unzipping the novel’s core twist.
Central to each woman’s stories are razor-sharp interrogations of the public consumption of traumatic stories. These women have contended with media storms that have painted them certain ways, conspiracy theories about what really happened, and internalized doubts about what they did and did not deserve. Class, beauty standards, and patriarchy all impact the way they’re seen by others. Who gets to be a victim? Who gets to be a hero? And what does it really mean to have agency? Can it really be said that these women had a choice when it came to suturing themselves to harmful men when the systems were rigged against them and in the favor of those men in the first place? Adelmann embeds these questions into the narrative so seamlessly.
The wolf of Ruby’s story is a literal wolf, and he is also a metaphor. Bernice’s story focuses less on the familiar Bluebeard tale and more on its aftermath, Bernice collecting furniture and decor her wretched ex made from the body parts and innards of his collected dead girlfriends. Those pieces talk to her in the dead women’s voices, telling their stories, which Bernice claims she must bear witness to. All of these women struggle in some way to let go, but how could they not? They do not wish to be defined by their tragedies, but it doesn’t matter. The media, the narratives foisted upon them by others, everyone has decided who they are and what they represent. Adelmann mixes metaphors, reality, and surreality to great effect, spinning a tale that blends the fantastic with grounded storytelling. The worldbuilding is immersive and original, and she doesn’t reimagine the fairytales she pulls from so much as implode them.
And reality television fits into it all so well, funny and dark in a way that reminisces of the short-lived television series UnREAL. Ashlee tells her story with verbalized emojis (“Sad Face,” she often says in response to the other women to convey, well, a sad face) and heartbreaking naivete about her real reality. (Though The One and Ashlee are specifically spoofing The Bachelor and its contestants, for me personally, it was difficult not to conjure the image and cadence of one Ashley Jacobs of Southern Charm, an archetypical reality villain if I’ve ever seen one.) Here’s Ashlee on The One, an excellent taste of the book’s wry and over-the-top sense of humor:
The title sequence for The One is always the lead in a suit dancing with thirty women in white lingerie. The song is a DJ Money remix of “Here Comes The Bride” plus “I’m A Slave 4 U.”
I mean, come on!!! As an avid reality television viewer myself (though The Bachelor is not in my viewing catalog), I’ve never read a more incisive and compelling critique of the form than found in this book. Again, Adelmann is so precise in this interplay between fairytales and reality television, complicating the ideas of villains, of character motivation, of storytelling when it comes to both. Humor and horror mix and mingle throughout
My favorite section of the book is, unsurprisingly, the queer love story gone wrong. Gretel is queer, and she’s the quietest member of the group, always observing others with a keen eye for details. She’s a conservationist at the Met, and her occupation, like many of her choices, reflects her lifelong desire for evidence. She constantly questions what happened to her when she was a girl, when she and her brother Hans disappeared for three months. It doesn’t help that her brother’s memories diverge from her own. While he was supposedly treated like a prince by their captor — or their savior, according to Hans — Gretel was tortured, unallowed to eat anything but candy and then nothing at all. She carries with her immense baggage about food, about trust, but also about being believed — by others and by herself.
“I’m just tired of convincing people, over and over again, of the same thing I have to keep convincing myself of,” says Gretel, “that the worst things that happened to me might actually be true.”
Gretel meets Jules while browsing at a bookshop (ye olde classic Dyke Fairytale), and she accidentally introduces herself by her recognizable first name instead of her preferred obscuration, G. But Jules doesn’t flinch, and Gretel thinks it might be possible she doesn’t know who she is at all, doesn’t know the oft-told tragic tale of her childhood. Gretel sees this as an opportunity, not to seize control of her narrative but rather to erase it entirely, to be a hollow box that Jules attempts to fill even though Gretel does not accept her offerings and offers nothing in return. It’s a doomed love story from the onset, and Adelmann tells it with tenderness for both Gretel and Jules, all of the women in the support group drawn with multiple dimensions. They’re misunderstood, but they’re also imperfect, because life isn’t as carefully constructed and straightforward as a fairytale or a reality television show.
All of the stories in How To Be Eaten touch on class and socioeconomic bias and obstacles, and Gretel’s haunted most powerfully not by the witch and her twisted face but by the cycle of poverty that led her to that house of candy, to the long lines of free dental clinics after, that still impacts her relationship with food and other people.
Shortly after meeting her, Jules offers her a piece of cookie, an innocuous and even mundane action in any other context, but here rendered fraught by Gretel’s trauma around food and sweetness — literal and not. “To want is to be bewitched, I’ve long thought,” Gretel explains. “If it’s beautiful or sweet, it will ruin you.”
On the sentence-level, How To Be Eaten indeed has a folklorish quality, mixed with modern sensibilities. Gretel’s section is playful and striking in its food imagery (“My smile was a melon rind, a meat hook” and, later, “I made my lips smile, a rope of licorice held slack”). It’s humorous and subversive throughout, Adelmann drawing some connections between the women and their stories that are obvious and some that are less so.
Fairytale reimaginings are frequent in the literary world, and even the question of what happens to the fairytale characters after the fairytale ends? could easily be taken in a run-of-the-mill direction, but Adelmann answers it in a way that feels genuinely fresh, thrilling, and even self-referential, How To Be Eaten baking into its premise the very idea that stories, no matter how often they’re told and retold, can always be broken apart and fashioned into something new.
After all, as Bernice asserts toward the end:
You can’t change the past, but it’s infinitely reframable. You can tell the same story over and over a hundred different ways, and every version is a little right and every version is a little wrong.
How To Be Eaten by Maria Adelmann is available now. Find more queer books in Autostraddle’s Literature section.