This is a novel about ‘mommy issues’. Rachel is a Reform Jew, ‘more Chanel bag Jew than Torah Jew’, and her mother has always been preoccupied by her daughter’s weight. ‘Anorexics are much skinnier than you’, she tells Rachel when she develops the condition as a teenager. ‘They look like concentration camp victims.’ Rachel’s therapist, Dr Mahjoub (who, we are told, fills her consultation room with elephants in trinket form) recommends a total break in contact between mother and daughter for 40 days.
Before this begins, Mahjoub makes Rachel perform an art therapy exercise: to create a sculpture of how she sees herself out of modelling clay. ‘I made massive thighs, weighty calves, a voluminous ass. I layered more and more clay, swirling it into an immense psychedelic woman.’ Rachel, it is worth noting, still suffers from disordered eating: the day’s main meal is a ‘medium sweet potato, microwaved for seven minutes, with three packets of Splenda poured into its guts’. She only buys protein bars made of whey, so she can eat them at the office (a minor talent agency, whose biggest star is more like ‘a glow-in-the-dark sticker, maybe’) in the bathroom, without making any crunching noises.
The sculpture becomes something of the golem from Jewish folklore, and its manifestation comes in the form of Miriam, an Orthodox woman who helps Rachel discover her appetite for sex and food. She starts her off with Vesuvian frozen yogurt concoctions. Where once the ‘nebulous calorie count of a drizzle [of fudge] posed too many variables’, now it ‘cavorted’ liberally with nuts and sprinkles, and Rachel eats the whole thing. Yogurt proves the gateway drug to kosher Chinese food and guiltily waking up with a half-eaten microwave pizza in the bed.
Rachel has graphic sexual fantasies about the co-worker she wants to mother her, and fancies herself something of a cunnilingus sommelier: women taste ‘mossy, cheesy, maybe oceanic’, ‘coppery, like a shipwrecked chalice at the bottom of the ocean’, or (notes on a theme) ‘brine’.
There are the same rompily fantastical leanings of Milk Fed’s immediate predecessor, The Pisces, about a woman’s relationship with a merman. Melissa Broder’s prose is witty, but at times so unrelentingly deadpan it is merely dead. The action comes to a head with an argument about Israel-Palestine, which feels like a cheap trick — but it leaves Rachel free to both reconcile with her mother and suck the marrow out of life.