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from a really average woman who lost 100 lbs.
and works every day to keep it off.

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Friday, February 06, 2004  

Passing For Thin
Frances Kuffel's Fine Memoir

Frances Kuffel lost 170 lbs. Half her body. Gone. It took years. It was hard. It still is. Luckily for all of us, Frances Kuffel is a remarkable writer, and managed, somehow, to write brilliantly about the messy, confusing, painful, joyful, complicated, hard work of losing lots and lots of weight.

Don't buy this book if you're looking for diet tips. The real "how to" in the book is a lesson on walking into a recovery group - probably Overeater's Anonymous, but she never identifies her group, of course - and giving oneself over to the hard work one does there. Roll your eyes if you choose to, but recovery groups, 12-step programs, are working every day for hundreds of thousands of us. Why not you? Why not me? Brilliant, funny, jaded, busy Frances walked into one of these meetings one day. That's how she did it.

Get this book if you have a lot of weight to lose, love someone who is losing a lot of weight, want to lose your fattist edge, or just if you're a fan of the memoir genre, because this is a good one. It's actually also, weirdly, a great coming-of-age novel, if the heroine of such a novel can come of age in her mid-40s. Except of course, this isn't a novel. This is Frances' life, and it is hard, painful, touching.

But not at first. When I first met Frances in these pages, I had a very hard time warming up to her and her story. At the beginning of the book and 338 lbs, Frances was prickly, fell in for that brand of easy sarcasm that passes for comedy these days and is just so tiresome, distancing humor, self-deprecating humor, belittling humor. It's annoying in its monotone. But as the book goes on, as her fat comes off, as Frances becomes more and more exposed, vulnerable, willing to take on and take responsibility for changing things, she becomes more and more and more genuinely funny, likable.

I have to be careful here. It's not skinny that made Frances likable. It was Frances learning to like herself that showed us all what's to like. And there's plenty. Frances does have good stuff.

She carefully crafts this telling so that her brains really shine along with her courage at the point when she joins her group. Slowly, she becomes more tolerant of others, more generally accepting, appreciative, curious, gentle, funny. She never drops her wit for a second, thank God. And by the end of the book, I was not only sobbing along at her story, but also cheering for this woman as she literally and figuratively climbs the mountains of her childhood and finds a place to belong. It's that kind of book.

But it's not sentimental. There are no Cinderella moments. When Frances drops enough weight to "pass for normal," and realizes, in a dressing room, with her mom, for the first time, ever, "I'm pretty," the moment is not so much celebratory as terrifying. This woman who has been obese since childhood has been handed her femininity and has no clue what to do with it. Very little experience to draw from. Moments when she spies on other women, adopting their fashion sense, their gestures, when she considers everything from how she will dress to how to handle casual flirtations are full of pathos without being at all pathetic. It is all new, it's hard, it's upsetting. She can't go back. She often can't go forward. Or has too many choices, and is frozen with indecision. She almost has no choice but to rely on other people, and other people do what they do. They give her what she needs when she needs it. And they let her down.

I use journey and discovery metaphors a lot when writing about losing lots of weight. And here it is again. Frances has been on a long expedition. She bravely faced down a lot of things many of us have never seen or tackled before. She took good notes, and came back to tell us all about it. Read this if you like stories of hope hard won. Read it if you are losing lots of weight and just need someone around who understands how weird it is, how hard, how at sea you can feel. Read it if what you need is courage. This is above all, a good book for courage.

The slow, slow dawning, building, developing of her ability to trust in her own wisdom, claim her due, protect herself, discover what it is that people like, and have always liked, about her. The internalizing of lessons she has to learn over and over. The setbacks and unanswered questions, messy and so like real life. Oooph, that's good stuff, right there.

This woman did not need to write this book. It's a powerful part of her recovery, though, to reach back and help the rest of us. And she does that here in a big way, using all of her astonishing talent to do it. Exposing herself. Putting it all in. It's good. I recommend.

Passing For Thin at Barnes & Noble
Overeaters Anonymous

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