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Liquid Lunch: Milk Fed By Melissa Broder
Lucy Dunn , March 20th, 2021 09:16

Melissa Broder's follow-up to 2018's The Pisces spins body dysmorphia and Orthodox Judaism into a compelling read, finds Lucy Dunn

Photo by Lord Byron

A tale of paradoxes from start to finish, Milk Fed is a whirlwind of energy. Melissa Broder’s newest novel is a thirst-quenching mix of love, loneliness, sex, and insatiable appetites. Broder’s straightforward writing style encapsulates the complexities of modern life: the entanglement of mental illness with self-image, the jarring of same-sex love with orthodox religion. The theme of pleasure woven throughout offers readers an easy, and enticing, way in. 

A slim, attractive woman who appears to have her life in check, Rachel secretly exists as a submissive to the unwaveringly restrictive control of her eating disorder. Her persistent inner voice permeates all facets of her life, difficult to distinguish from her own mother’s berating that ‘thinner is better’. Never able to earn the parental approval she craves, following advice from her therapist, Rachel’s particularly toxic relationship with her mother is put on hold at the start of the novel, forcing the narrator to navigate life without living at her constant beck and call. 

Following Broder’s fast-paced and in-your-face style, we watch lapsed-Jew Rachel engage in her new ‘religion’; its higher power not a god, but the mastery of one’s body. Her abandonment of her Jewish orthodoxy could go unnoticed as her disordered eating habits are similarly ritualistic, her food sacred. She eats at set times, counts calories to the unit, visits the same shops each day, and finishes in the gym after five, finding bliss in the banality. 

Until, one day, Rachel’s routine is rudely disrupted: in the place of her regular yogurt server stands the voluptuous, over-familiar, disorganised Miriam. Her body’s consumption of space is in stark contrast to the frailty of the narrator. With undulating rolls that continue to ripple past the expiration of her movements, overflowing from her clothes like she overfills the fro-yo cup, Miriam provides a splash of imperfect colour to the pristine canvas that is Rachel’s life. 

Something about this bubbly girl both frustrates and excites Rachel. Just as the extra-large yogurt portion is welcomed in desperate delight by her starving body, she too is awakened from her monotonous practices. Her cravings are initially exclusive to food, but after a while, her discomfort transforms into desire and she finds herself relaxing – both the waistband of her trousers, and her own inhibitions. The fat to her thin, Orthodox to her secular, this woman is the literal embodiment of all that Rachel fears – and yet she loves it: both women are so different that they fit together perfectly. Whilst humorous in parts, Rachel’s journey from scared little girl into queer, independent woman subtly nudges us to reflect upon our own lives, with our own unmet desires.

Alongside Broder’s dry humour, her unravelling of complex issues provides educational value as well as entertainment. Descriptions of the various stages of eating disorders, in all their inglorious glory, so perfectly detail the mental enigma that exists in the minds of many sufferers, the anomaly foreign to those who don’t speak their language. In spite of the forced aversion to eating, there exists an overpowering, obsessive craving for food, in place of material meals, like a pining for some long-lost lover. 

Moreover, Rachel’s erotic fantasies are set in flux with the beautiful innocence that her dates with Miriam initially encompass. Broder illustrates the intricacies of female romance and the blurry lines that can become so easily tangled with the crossover in language describing close female friendships and lesbian lovers. Her explicitness won’t be to everyone’s taste, though she can’t be faulted for falling short on detail. 

As readers, we are never entirely sure of Rachel’s intentions, or even whether she is sure herself. Her desire to be fed, both physically and sexually, emanates from the lack of love received in her own childhood, and she frequently dreams about carnal partners that shape-shift between amorous, provocative lovers and more comforting, maternal figures. She even envisions her new partner as something more like a sister than a mate. It begs the question: does she truly love Miriam, or is she just in love with what she symbolises? 

And love is the overriding theme of the novel: love for another, love for oneself, maternal love, and spiritual love – no matter your religion. However, it is not so much the understanding of love that proves testing; it’s finding the balance between deprivation and excess. Milk Fed is fickle in its intertwining of control and chaos to create points where neither Rachel nor the reader understands where the boundary is set between the two While eating disorders teach one the art of depriving themselves of love, Miriam appears as some spiritual warrior sent to dismantle these internal illusions. But, as Broder deftly illustrates, Miriam isn’t devoid of troubles and imperfections. Just as Rachel battles with her body dysmorphia, her partner struggles to let go of her own ingrained ideas, lost at the intersection of relationships and religion. As the plot progresses, a subtle role reversal takes place: Rachel’s shyness in the world of food is not proportionate to her confidence in the bedroom and we watch as the once-submissive starts to dominate Miriam, teaching her the ways of female love. The equilibrium constantly shifts. Contrary to our first impressions, neither one remains in control of the other for long. 

The novel consists, refreshingly, of an all-female main cast whilst the male characters tend to be pushed to the sideline. There is the faint scent of a whimsical subplot woven throughout the work that slyly derides their shortcomings, from the superficial CEO, to self-declared Casanova, Jace, and even Miriam’s own mute father. This subtle mockery creates a sense of community between the prospective readership, providing light relief where they can laugh, between the drama, at the sleazy, self-important men unintentionally playing joker. 

Although unique in many ways, Milk Fed touches on issues of insecurity, parental control, and deep-seated beliefs – both societal and religious – that are entirely universal. Broder bravely delves into aspects of her own troubled past in her writing, and in doing so, simultaneously forces readers to immerse themselves in introspection. Do we too easily allow ourselves to be debilitated by our fears, without first attempting to face them? Are our own actions explainable by repressed emotion, whose head we never allow to rear? Do we really know ourselves as well as we think? Each turn of the page brings temporary satiety as we devour the unfolding plot, followed almost immediately by an irresistible craving for more. Immensely readable, hilariously relatable, and enticingly explicit, Milk Fed is a refreshing take on the true complexity of today’s modern woman, flaws and all, and Broder’s humorous honesty makes for a compelling read.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder is published by Bloomsbury