Reeling from her mother’s death, Georgia knows that things have to change. After years of trying to blend into the background, Georgia is ready to be brave just like her mother told her to be in her last letter.
Armed with a list of brave things to do ranging from “asking him out” to smoking pot to going to trapeze school, Georgia is ready to get out of her own way and do everything; she’s ready to be everything in How to Be Brave (2015) by E. Katherine Kottaras.
How to Be Brave is Kottaras’ first novel. In a red-letter year for body acceptance novels, it’s also being touted as comparable read for Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy.
A lot of my issues with the book are decidedly my own. They also include spoilers to some extent so be wary.
After reading a few, I’ve decided I don’t like body acceptance novels. They are almost never done well and more often than not they leave me feeling less confident, not more.
Such was the case with How to Be Brave while the book is often lyrical and offers a thoughtful and nuance treatment of grief, it falls short as a story about an overweight girl learning to feel comfortable in her own skin.
Instead of letting readers draw their own conclusions about her size, Georgia is quick to point out that she is a size sixteen. She is not, in her view, as far gone as the girl who is perhaps a size 20 that shows up to cheerleader tryouts. Being size obsessed is fine, but the book stops there. By never getting into the build of any of the characters How to Be Brave doesn’t paint a full picture and just became frustrating. (Full disclosure: I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been and I am a size 16 and on the tall size. Reading about Georgia feeling SO FAT at that same size and maybe a similar height made me feel like garbage.)
What I’m really done with though, is the fact that these books tend to have a “morbidly obese” secondary character who is dead. In this book that character is Georgia’s mother (size 24, no word on height) who dies of what one can assume are complications from being overweight (though again this doesn’t really make sense since the mother was healthy enough to cheer in high school and took care of herself).
On her website Kottaras states that the novel began as a thought experiment to explore how her life might have been different if her mother had died before her father instead of the other way around. While I can’t speak to Kottaras’ experiences, I can say that I am decidedly tired of a book with an overweight protagonist needing some kind of contrast or wake up call to be healthy in the form of a dead relative.
This tired and frustrating trope combined with watching Georgia make choices that were difficult to support, left me disappointed and unenthusiastic about this book.
Parts of How to Be Brave are incredible evocative–particularly Georgia’s free verse thoughts at the end of each chapter–and even empowering. Unfortunately these moments are bogged down in clumsy and poorly executed body acceptance themes.
Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee
*An advance copy of this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration*