I tend to shy away from new books that get a swell of early praise from mainstream sources, and I’m often vindicated in doing so (American Dirt, anyone?). In the age of gushing blurbs, it’s hard to know what book, if any, can live up to the hype that precedes it.
Color me pleasantly surprised by Milk Fed, Melissa Broder’s second novel (Scribner, February 2021). It received a ton of good press ahead of its publication from big-name magazines. What a breath of fresh air it was for those accolades to be right!
This book has everything: lesbian sex, mommy issues, eating disorders, frozen yogurt, plus-size golems, Jewish mysticism, weirdly specific fantasies about coworkers, a fat chick as the love interest, and a whole lot more. If that feels like a lot, it is… but by the end, we realize that’s kind of the whole point.
Rachel, our narrator, is a deeply unhappy, young Jewish woman living in Los Angeles on the periphery of glitz and glamor. She works for a talent agency and is white-knuckling through some serious personal issues: mainly, recovery from anorexia, which isn’t going as well as she thinks. Every calorie is planned—every meal’s routine, secret and sacred. Everything Rachel does is in service to this brittle little universe she’s built, but one good-sized wind could bring the whole thing crashing down. And what kind of book would this be if everything didn’t come crashing down?
Enter: the glitch in the matrix. Miriam appears behind the counter where Rachel gets her daily, fifty-calorie frozen yogurt. She’s a girl who is everything Rachel fears and craves at once: indulgent, unabashed, and fully realized. She’s a girl whom Rachel unwittingly summoned forth, during an art-therapy exercise, to be her own undoing.
Or did she?
Milk Fed is the kind of book you tear through. Broder’s tale of one girl’s coming of age is at turns funny, poignant, and squirm-in-your-seat sexy. She builds this bold, unconventional narrative by putting us directly under Rachel’s skin. Through Broder’s microscopic lens we can taste the nicotine gum, the grit of the protein bars. We can feel the relief and terror when Rachel finally gives into Miriam’s increasingly dangerous temptations. The boundary between her inner life and reality becomes more permeable as she unravels; think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but the fantasies are sexual instead of musical. The border also blurs between Rachel’s life of deprivation and the intoxicating—yet not wholly uncomplicated—fullness that Miriam embodies, to truly thrilling conclusions. And speaking of Miriam: it’s wonderful to see a fat woman as the object of desire in a way that transcends fetishization. Major kudos to Broder for achieving such necessary nuance.
Think of all the fictional characters you’ve loved in your life. Chances are, they have one big thing in common: longing. Yearning. Craving. The fumbling, flawed pursuit of filling a void within themselves. The sense of yearning in Milk Fed vibrates off the page. Rachel is the neediest narrator I’ve ever read. She wants for so much, all at once: control, surrender, comfort, connection to tradition, sex, and a mother who is, well, nothing like her actual mother. She wants to be fed and consumed to the point of oblivion. In the wrong hands, such an emotional black hole of a character might be easy to hate. Hell, you might even put her down and never pick her up again. But Rachel’s voice itself is both relatable and addictive—a combination of Broder’s signature frankness and sardonic wit—and it lets us hover on the edge of that black hole of emotion without falling all the way in.
I was in a writing workshop once, and the instructor pressed us to write something “audacious.” He wanted us to write what scared or embarrassed us, because that’s where the most compelling stories lie. I can only think of a handful of writers today who have the audacity to write like Melissa Broder does, and it’s why I read Milk Fed in a little over a day. No—I devoured it. I kept wandering away from my phone or the TV or my wife so I could crawl back into bed and find out what wild thing Rachel was going to do, say, or fantasize about next. She was audacious in every sense, and I was addicted.
There’s another important void Milk Fed fills in the world of new releases today, and that might be what makes this book so satisfying. So many contemporary novels feel more like long short stories. They’re extended snapshots of situations that are interesting, but go mostly uninterrogated. In the end, we’re left to wonder: what was the point? But Broder pushes her characters past the point of comfort and security. She puts them in hot water time and again; we get to watch them squirm and grow, like real people do.
This kind of character development makes Milk Fed feel wonderfully complete when all is said and done, and not in a contrived, all-tied-up-with-a-bow kind of way. Rachel tells her story from a point of transformation, and there’s hope in that. This moment in her life isn’t just interesting; it’s an inflection point. And that’s the good shit that keeps you coming back for more.