I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press (April 18, 2023)
Length: 384 pages
Author Information: Website
Imagine a world where prevailing perceptions of food consumption and sex are reversed from the norm—that is, partaking in the act of eating or cooking is considered illicit, while sexual acts are performed freely, frequently, and publicly simply because it is a natural part of everyday life. This is the foundation upon which The Thick and the Lean is built. Part sci-fi dystopian and part food porn, the novel takes place on a fictional planet and follows the lives of two ostensibly unrelated women who are in fact connected by an ancient book of memoirs and recipes written by a kitchen girl named Ijo many centuries ago.
When the story opens, readers are introduced to Beatrice, born and raised in the cultish community of Seagate with a puritanical attitude towards all things related to food. Her church equates starvation to piety, where suppressing your appetite is worship and being overweight is a sign of overindulgence and excess. However, even her strict upbringing could not suppress Beatrice’s lifelong fascination with food, which she has hidden from everyone since she was a young girl. She loves the idea of cooking all sorts of marvelous dishes, of savoring their many different flavors. What Beatrice desires most in the world is to be a chef, but to realize her dream she must escape Seagate to find a new home more accepting of her predilections. Eventually, with the help of a black-market connection, she gets her chance—but in the face of an unknown world, Beatrice soon discovers there is much to learn beyond figuring out how to achieve her own ambitions.
Meanwhile, interwoven into the narrative are also chapters following Reiko, an aspiring artist from a poor family living in the lowest socio-economic tier. So when she is offered a scholarship to attend a distinguished school in the Middle—which is not quite as exalted as the glittering Above, but still far elevated from her own impoverished background in the Bastian—Reiko is excited to be literally moving up in life. But this initial elation is short-lived. She becomes disillusioned by the other more privileged students who will be handed a degree whether they do the work or not, while she must struggle to maintain her scholarship. And then, even that turns out to be a lie. Rather than go home with nothing, Reiko decides to reinvent herself as a cybercriminal, using her hacking skills to con the rich.
At some point, both Beatrice and Reiko come across a book called The Kitchen Girl, excerpts from which are scattered throughout the novel, timed to provide insight into the happenings in each woman’s life.
While fascinating, The Thick and the Lean is a book whose strengths lie more in its themes than its writing or storytelling. Author Chana Porter is clearly out to explore a certain subset of contemporary issues, with the “far-flung planet” setting serving as a flimsy stand-in for our own modern society. However, despite the ideas themselves being quite compelling, everything else was simply underwhelming. World-building was sparse, just enough to serve the story’s purposes, mainly to establish our characters’ origins and motivations that send Beatrice and Reiko on the trajectories of their respective lives. The plot was also on the weaker side, forced to meander through unnecessary dialogue and drawn-out sequences in order to keep the themes on point while simultaneously going way off script. To be honest, I was actually quite taken with the story when I first started the book, but my interest gradually waned towards the middle—right around the time Porter started losing control of the plot. The various threads felt too disparate, and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the connections between Beatrice and Reiko’s narratives. Heck, I wasn’t even entirely sold on the tenuous links holding together the very different stages of each woman’s life.
That said though, in terms of its potential to be one gigantic metaphor, The Thick and the Lean has legs. It’s not subtle either when it comes to its commentary on current societal ills like corporate corruption, the widening gap between the poor and the ultra wealthy, the exorbitant costs of college, environmental degradation, and so much more. But then there are also themes that touch upon experiences on a more personal level, those dealing with an individual’s struggle with body image or the stigma of eating disorders. In particular, these were the ideas I found unique and entrancing, and the layers of analogies in this book provide much that warrants serious consideration. In fact, I wish more of the story had stayed on the topic of food, exploring the complex relationship that cultures and societies have with the rituals of preparing it and consuming it.
In sum, there are things The Thick and the Lean does well, and places where it falls short. Personally, I place more importance on characters and story when I read, so while Chana Porter’s social commentary and messages on body positivity might come from a good place, they are nonetheless secondary to my enjoyment. Perhaps this is why I feel only lukewarm towards the novel, though I’ll also admit it was quite an eye-opening read. I would recommend trying it out if anything in its description piques your interest.