I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Thick and the Lean by Chana Porter
Published by Gallery/Saga Press on April 18 2023
Genres: Adult, Dystopian, Science fiction
Format: Finished hardcover
Buy on Amazon
The nitty-gritty: Chana Porter subverts our ideas of food and sex in this unique dystopian tale.
“This is normally where we would have sex,” teased Georgina. “But you’re the girl who doesn’t like sex.”
“I like sex,” said Beatrice softly. I just like food more.
The Thick and the Lean has one of the most unusual concepts I’ve ever read. In this futuristic world, attitudes and beliefs about food and sex are reversed. What this means is that eating food is taboo, while public sex is the norm. I ended up really enjoying this, with a few reservations, which I’ll go into below. But I loved Chana Porter’s writing, and her descriptions of food made my mouth water, they were so vivid! Also, props to the cover design, which perfectly captures Porter’s unique ideas.
The story alternates between two main characters. Beatrice lives in Seagate, a community where abstaining from food is akin to being closer to God. Members are regularly weighed to make sure they aren’t ingesting too much of the tasteless paste that passes as food, and teens are encouraged to attend sleep overs at the church in order to explore their sexuality. Everyone takes pills to suppress their appetites. But Beatrice is hungry. She longs to eat food and secretly yearns to be a chef someday. And when she meets a woman named Lina, she acquires a forbidden book called The Kitchen Girl, a journal/cookbook written long ago by a girl named Ijo.
Next we meet Reiko, a girl who lives in the Bastian, one of the lower and less fortunate tiers of society. Reiko has just been awarded a scholarship to attend college in the Middle, and she’s excited to leave home and pursue a new opportunity. But when her scholarship falls through, Reiko turns to crime in order to survive, and her new career as a cyber thief leads her to an old book called The Kitchen Girl, found in the apartment of one of her marks.
Interspersed among the two girls’ chapters are excerpts from The Kitchen Girl, which seems to be a bridging device to join Reiko and Beatrice together. Eventually their stories do converge, but it takes a long time for that to happen, which is my main issue with the story. I guess I’ll get the negatives out of the way first. The beginning of The Thick and the Lean was very strong, and I immediately became invested in Beatrice’s story. But when Reiko came along, I wasn’t as interested. Also, my brain was trying to make a connection between the two girls and I wanted to find out how their stories fit together. It isn’t until around three hundred pages in that they finally meet, and for me it was just too late.
I also struggled with the last section of the story, where we meet a third character named Claudia. It turns out Claudia is actually one of the other two characters (I won’t tell you which one), who had to change her name after a particular event. Porter gives the reader clues as to the real identity of Claudia, but the introduction of Claudia’s character was rather abrupt and didn’t completely make sense.
So as you can see, there is some confusion going on with the plot. I also thought the overall structure was a bit scattered, since the story jumps around a lot and is sometimes hard to follow. As I mentioned before, I loved reading Beatrice’s chapters more than Reiko’s, so I started to lose interest whenever the narrative shifted to Reiko.
But now let’s talk about the elements I enjoyed. Porter’s world is fascinating, but it’s certainly not a world I would want to find myself in. Beatrice’s family belongs to a church where eating is strictly monitored. And eating in front of someone just isn’t done, at least in Seagate where Beatrice lives. It was heartbreaking and uncomfortable to see Beatrice hoard illegal food, and when she meets Lina, her world opens up to so many possibilities: becoming a chef, growing her own food, working in a restaurant and feeding other people who love food as much as she does. Porter does a great job of addressing issues like eating disorders and body image. For example, after years of being told by her parents and her church that eating is bad and being skinny is good, Beatrice gains weight when she starts eating real food, only to realize that she loves her new, rounder body, even if her parents want to “fix” her. The publisher’s note says that the story was inspired by Porter’s personal struggle with anorexia and body image, and because of this her messages of body positivity and self-love felt authentic and believable.
All the sex talk and scenes in the book might shock some readers, after all, sex in this world is just no big deal. In the mood and you’re at the park with your friend? Hey, just find a spot on the grass and go at it! It’s not uncommon for a husband to bring some work friends home and expect his wife to, ahem, entertain them. In our world you wouldn’t think twice about sitting down to a meal with a group of freinds, and Porter has flipped our attitudes about food and sex in some very interesting ways. The sex parts did get to be a little too much for me eventually, but they definitely made for a provocative story element.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with The Thick and the Lean, and I’ll be curious to see what Chana Porter writes next.
Big thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.