Facing a dizzying array of choices about her future, a nineteen-year-old junior at Brown begins to eat only cottage cheese and rice cakes, thus setting in motion a long struggle with anorexia. This is the autobiographical opening scene of Caroline Knapp’s posthumously published Appetites, an important exploration of the particularly female phenomenon of eating disorders. This urgent book describes scenes that increasing numbers of women and girls across the country continue to act out each day.
Knapp describes anorexia as a disorder that has less to do with hunger than with “the sense of entitlement and agency and initiative that leads one to say, first, I want, and then, more critically, I deserve.” Although one might expect women’s sense of entitlement and agency to grow stronger as we enjoy the fruits of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the reality is quite different, Knapp argues; the incidence of eating disorders in this country has increased by 36 percent every five years since the 1950s.
Knapp argues persuasively that as women make gains in our personal and professional lives, we pay for it by curtailing our bodies in a kind of “mathematics of desire.” And women, she observes, are brilliant at this kind of math. We know how to grow physically smaller as we “get psychically larger.” We’re subject to “post-feminist appetites”: yearnings awakened by new opportunities but unaccompanied by a sense of entitlement. Our conflicts reflect and shape a world where change started and then stopped, “where the social movement that fueled the first half of the change remains in the slumber that first took hold in the 1980s, the fog of forgetting.”
This compelling perspective alone is reason enough to read and reread Appetites, despite its journey through territory already mapped by feminists and psychologists: eating disorders conceived as simultaneous compliance with and rebellion against patriarchal conceptions of beauty, as expressions of conflicted mother-daughter bonds, as frustrated desires, or as substitutions for love. The fact that so many girls and women are now engaging in increasingly intense psychic bargaining—feed one appetite, starve another—underscores the inadequacy of these other descriptions.
To Knapp’s credit she does not conclude her analysis of a world in which “men eat, [and] women feed” with simplistic self-help mantras. Instead she points out that we are in the midst of what feminist historians call an “open moment,” a period in which women can either “forge ahead or stand still, deciding that a half-changed world is insufficient or learning to live within its confines.” Of course, she hopes we will forge ahead, and points to small private and public ways in which women are doing just that.
The Wife, Meg Wolitzer’s painfully funny sixth novel, begins in an open moment in the life of Joan Castleman, the bitter, wry wife of literary giant Joe Castleman. Flying to Finland for Joe to collect a prestigious literary prize, Joan decides that their forty-five year marriage is over—just as she watches him gobble up the food the flight attendants serve him: “ ‘Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?’ ” a brunette asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew, I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over all these decades. ‘Mrs. Castleman?’ the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies, or anything else.”
Joan has made high art of self-denial, and The Wife unfolds as the story of a woman coming to terms with the ways in which she has starved her own appetites. In flashbacks set against their arrival in Finland, Joan recounts the story of their marriage in a narrative that is both heart-rending and laugh-out-loud funny, dispensing unbearable truths about men and women with one hand and tender wisecracks about Finland with the other.
Joan started out as a voracious girl who would ask her mother, “How can I just have this one life?” while eating a cruller. She becomes “a slender, hygienic Smith girl” who runs off with her English professor rather than pursuing her own promising writing career. Why? “I wasn’t Mary McCarthy or Lillian Hellman. I didn’t want the attention; it made me skittish and unsure. What a relief it was to see the spotlight tilt its cone toward Joe.”
And Joe Castleman loves that spotlight; he is “all appetite, it sometimes seems, all wide mouth and roaring stomach”—“one of those men who own the world.” Joe eats, drinks, lectures, and carries on extramarital affairs with gusto, while his wife, in an orgy of self-sacrifice, ignores the affairs, drinks, raises their three children, and propels him forward to glory.
There is a horrifying twist to the story. That some readers may see it coming does not diminish its effect, since The Wife gathers its power not from surprise, but rather from the lucidity of the not-entirely-sympathetic Joan, who turns out to be a cross between John Updike and the madwoman in the attic. In the oddly beautiful, hopeful end of the novel, Joan accepts food from the same flight attendant who’d earlier fed her husband; appetites, Wolitzer implies, can be sated in unexpected ways. Not to be missed by women who’ve reached middle age, or by anyone who’s suffered through a seminar or cocktail party with one of those “men who own the world,” The Wife is destined to be a classic.
As for Caroline Knapp, her gift for re-envisioning her experiences in service to others makes her death last year from lung cancer at age forty-two all the more sad. I hope she left this world knowing that her book will inspire us to battle our culture’s insidious prescriptions for starving ourselves as we feed our other appetites. And wherever she is, I hope a table has been laid out before her.
Julia Bucci writes and teaches writing in Providence.