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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Chick lit hits a new low with brainless 'Big Boned'

Somewhere in her literary career, Cabot made the perplexing decision to switch from being the well-regarded author of books for young teenage girls ("The Princess Diaries") to being the author of adult fiction with such titles as "Big Boned," "Size 12 is Not Fat" and "Size 14 is Not Fat Either." These titles suggest that Meg Cabot is trying to write about real, imperfect people to whom her readership can relate. But with too-precious names like Tad Tocco, Cooper Cartwright and Gavin McGoren (wow, alliteration!), Cabot makes it hard to take her characters seriously. Additionally, the people she depicts are blatant stock characters: the Southern belle who calls people "fussbudgets," the hippie student activist sporting dreadlocks, the witty, shoe-loving gay friend.

It becomes even harder to see past these caricatures when Cabot surrounds them with ridiculous, outlandish situations. Heather Wells, the protagonist of "Big Boned," is the assistant dorm director of Fischer Hall, a college residence hall nicknamed Death Dorm (an, alliteration again), in which murder runs rampant and everyone is a suspect. Wells takes it upon herself to solve the homicide cases, all while complaining about calorie intake, exchanging "clever" quips with her gay former boss Tom and being generally desired by every male in the New York College vicinity.

Contrary to Cabot's intentions, I found myself feeling no empathy whatsoever towards Heather Wells. I could not have cared less whether the murderers in Death Dorm finished her off, much less whether she ended up with Tad Tocco or Cooper Cartwright in the end. Her character backstory is so outrageously farfetched that no reader could possibly relate to it. Brace yourself:

As an ex-teenage singing sensation with a live-in ex-con dad, Wells is forced to work the lowly position of assistant residence hall director because her mom ran off to Argentina over ten years ago with her daughter's manager and money. She inhabits an expensive Manhattan brownstone for free in exchange for doing the bookkeeping for her pop star ex-boyfriend's brother's private detective agency (Poor Heather!). But as the novel progresses, things are looking up -- Wells exercises her abilities as an amateur sleuth, the star of a new kid's show and the love object of attractive Manhattan males, including, but not limited to, a "vegetarian killer Frisbee-playing tenure track assistant professor;" her private detective landlord (whom she believes is her soul mate because they both identify with Dorothy on "Golden Girls") and a smitten film student.

This totally implausible plot premise could have been turned into a zany comedy in another writer's hands, perhaps, but Cabot is not up to the task. The writing is appallingly bad; one can see where it's supposed to be funny, but Wells' asides to the reader fall far short of being quick-witted. The dialogue is cutesy and almost unreadable without bursting into embarrassed-to-be-reading-this laughter. Pop culture references are randomly inserted into the narrative, which, though the book was published only this year, are already outdated. At one point our heroine, with her characteristic sparkling wit, declares that she will not put on a pair of leggings because "Mischa Barton I am not"-- the "O.C." hasn't been on for awhile. Heather Wells is supposed to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and yet she still uses immature slang, saying her boss is "way involved" in a campus dispute, and at one point accomplishes the difficult task of saying "like" four times in a row-- "You liked Pete. liked liked him." Heather's immaturity is not only manifest in her speech, but in her attitude; she watches Cartoon Network and thinks her boss deserved to die because he scolded her about borrowing computer paper.

A Publisher's Weekly review of this book, quoted on the front cover, claims that Meg Cabot is the "George Bernard Shaw, if not the George Eliot, of chick lit." Daring to compare this badly written fluff with the works of a Nobel Prize-winning author and a master of nineteenth century literature is more than just presumptuous, it's insulting -- to Shaw and Eliot, at least. Chick lit is not universally mindless; but "Big Boned" is a big failure as anything other than escapist fantasy for women who want to believe that every crush turns into a meaningful romantic relationship, and only the boring people get murdered. If you want an actual role model, or a protagonist with any intelligence whatsoever, don't bother with Heather Wells.