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I could not begin to talk about this novel without saying that it had the impact of a two-headed serpent. The first head kept me riveted to the story while the other managed to get me off my ass and back to finishing the final draft of my own novel.

This is possibly only really a "young adult" novel because it is told from the perspective of a high school student, Eric "Moby" Calhoune. The central story is about his friendship with Sarah Byrnes, who he has known since junior high school. They became friends because they were outcasts and freaks. Eric was the fat kid. Sarah Byrnes, who always goes by her full name so no one has to point out the irony to her, is covered by burns she claims were caused by having pulled a pot of boiling spaghetti onto herself when she was very young.

It goes much deeper than that, and much deeper than I expected, delving into how the perspectives one develops in life impact how they see others and life itself. These young adult novels keep surprising me in a good way.

In part because they have the "terminal uglies," Eric and Sarah Byrnes develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship than any of their peers. They face everything together, until it reaches the point where Eric gets involved in competitive swimming and begins to lose some of his weight, although never becoming trim and "in shape." They call him Moby because he swims like a whale. As this new chapter begins in Eric's life he fears Sarah Byrnes thinking he's leaving her behind to join the normal people. That's where the title comes from. He works overtime trying to stay fat in order to keep their friendship from coming apart.

Author Chris Crutcher is apparently known for writing novels for young adults that deal with difficult issues and usually revolving in some way around athletics, which is probably why we get so much detail about the nuts and bolts of competitive swimming. That is probably the only point at which you want to rush ahead in the story. There are only so many laps one can take in written form, but maybe there is some kind of metaphor involved. There probably is.

Things do come apart. Sarah Byrnes, who was always sharp tongued and tough in her efforts to stay alive despite being seriously deformed, suddenly goes catatonic. She's faking it and Eric wants to know what could bring out so much fear in someone so strong. Let's just say her burns were not related to boiling spaghetti water and her father is not Chuckles the Clown.

There are many characters who are more than just a supporting cast. They all face serious issues without much sugar on top, and this doesn't let up for very long, even when they are in the pool. There is an abundance of dry and dark humor around to give us air, but these kids are all very real and they aren't bogged down in a morass of political correctness. They are who they are and Chris Crutcher isn't going to give you characters who apologize for calling Sarah Byrnes "Scarface."

These kids don't apologize. They find themselves by first destroying themselves and then building themselves again.

It is intense and highly recommended. I might even read it again next week. I hear they are making it into a movie... as you're reading this, maybe they already have.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
by Chris Crutcher
currently available in paperback from Amazon.com
or wherever fine books are sold.
Not yet available in the UK according to the lovely XWiz.

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