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Retro Friday Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post each week.



Okay, so can you really read just the title of this book and not want to dive into the rest of it? I couldn't. This was one of our monthly Young Adult Reading Group (YARG) Readerville selections back in the day. It was also my first Chris Crutcher book and, really, what a way to start. I had no idea what his writing style would be like, how his characters would affect me, and I was floored by how deeply involved I became in their story. I can't remember exactly who suggested it, but I am so very glad they did because I immediately went out and bought it and have loved it ever since. It immediately earned a nice, cozy spot on my Beloved Bookshelf and the only thing I wish different about it is its cover, which is really not that bad, but which doesn't exactly scream "I am unbelievably awesome!" in the way that it should. If you haven't read a Crutcher book, and especially if you haven't read this one, I highly recommend doing so immediately. He's like the Judy Blume of books about teenage boys and sports and his books are almost always on the most recently challenged and/or banned lists every year. It's to do with the fact that he actually talks about things and brings up issues and serious problems in the lives of today's teens, including prejudice (racial and religious), abuse, depression, and poverty. His books are also screamingly funny and this one is no exception.

Eric Calhoune isn't like other high school seniors. Nicknamed "Moby," Eric used to be obese. Ostracized by his peers in junior high, he formed an alliance with a girl named Sarah Byrnes, who was also an outsider on account of the quantity of disfiguring scars all over her face and hands--the result of a terrible accident when she was little. Together Eric and Sarah Byrnes got each other through the nightmare that is junior high. But when Eric hit high school he started swimming. He swam so long and so hard the fat started to melt right off his chubby body. He'll never be thin, but he's no longer the big, doughy butt of everyone's jokes. And though the outside changed, the nickname stuck. Everything that made up the real Eric stuck. And his friend Sarah Byrnes stuck. Even though her scars could never miraculously melt away. His kindness balanced her acerbity and cynicism and it seemed that everything would be all right. Then one day Sarah Byrnes stops speaking. Stops responding completely to anything. She just . . . stops. Right in the middle of class. They take her to the hospital and eventually admit her to the psych ward. Eric visits her every single day, talking to her, reminding her of their good times. But nothing seems to get through. And, though he thinks he might know why Sarah Byrnes finally checked out, Eric isn't at all sure what to do to get her back.

I love this book. I mean, I love this book. It represents the best in contemporary young adult literature and it does it with humor, gravity, and tension. It's impossible not to like Eric right away and the bond between him and Sarah Byrnes is touching in the extreme. My laughter and my empathy clambered on top of each other throughout the story, particularly as Eric surrounds himself with, as his swim coach often says, a cast of characters straight out of The Far Side. His buddy and fellow swim team member Ellerby is at the top of the list. And their lively, unexpectedly thoughtful discussions in their Contemporary American Thought class provide a wonderful venue for the teens to attempt to parse out the meaning behind the beliefs they've always held, right and wrong, the challenges they're facing now, and what could cause a young girl to up and walk away from the life she led. I didn't even surface while reading Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Not once. I loved Eric, the boy so loyal, so afraid of losing his best friend that he stayed fat an extra year for her. He ate even more than usual, even after getting a handle on his weight, just so she wouldn't be alone in her differentness. The questions that pepper the text captivated me. Why did Sarah Byrnes stop talking? What was she like before and what hasn't she told Eric? What will he do about her, about his crush on beautiful, sad Jody Mueller, about his mother's new boyfriend Carver, about using his intelligence and his compassion to help those around him? I'll close with a favorite early passage:
I stand in front of the huge double doors at the entrance to Sacred Heart Hospital and breathe deep, my frozen hair hugging my head like a bicycle helmet and my breath shooting from my mouth like exhaust from a truck. I wear only a light jacket; my internal heating system boils for hours after workout. Coach forever tells me to cover up when I go outside, but when I cover up I sweat like a walrus in a sauna. I threaten Coach with my laundry.

Sarah Byrnes is inside. Eighth floor. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Unit. I've put this off, thought she'd be out in a couple of days, but it's been a full week. Sarah Byrnes. Toughest kid I know, and she just slipped away.

I don't want to go inside. I was here once about four years ago when my third cousin got drunk and attempted suicide. Not much of an attempt, really. He OD's on Flintstones vitamins, but he was wigged out so bad they stuck him in for seventy-two-hour observation. What they observed was extremely yellow pee. I hated visiting him. The place itself was nice--thick carpeting and comfortable chairs, plenty of books to read and games to play. It felt safe in a strange way, not for me, but for the people in there. But they all had a look, as if something important had been peeled away. And you got the feeling it could happen to you.

Now Sarah Byrnes is here. My best friend. I stayed fat a whole year for her.
This one you won't want to close. This one is worth your time. It cuts close and it makes you think and I'd love to talk with more people who've read it.


Linkage
This Ain't Livin' Review
Writer Musings Review

Comments

  1. That title is a total hook! And I love your review. It really makes me wish I had the book so I could start it right now.

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  2. Wow, great review, Angie! This seems like a good book. I've never read a Chris Crutcher before. I'm adding this to my wishlist.

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  3. This is definitely going on my growing TBR list. Thanks Angie!

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  4. Okay, you've got my attention... off to add this to my TBR list...

    :)

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  5. I'm going to have to add this one to my to-read list too!

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  6. I didn't even know about this book or the author until I was cruising around Amazon a few months ago and happened by it on accident. It sounded really good, but I kinda forgot about it until your review. Thanks for including that excerpt; I am digging his writing style just by that small bit.

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  7. Oh, I, too, love this book and reread it every so often. Funny--I read it in Readerville, too. We must have crossed paths there, though I used a different name then. I remember I was on the treadmill at the gym when I read the part when the bad guy is chasing him, and started *running* (which I never do).

    Such a great book.

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  8. Lenore, awesome! Mission accomplished then. :) Hope a copy finds its way to your door soon.

    Chachic, this would be a superb one to start with!

    firepages, yay!

    Britt, this one really does go into topics that are weightier than you often find.

    Alison, I hope you enjoy it.

    Kris, and that excerpt it literally just a couple of pages in. So he hooks you early on and it's only great from there on in.

    Checkers, no way! What was your handle on Readerville? I was Elph2. And that bit about the treadmill and that particular scene was awesome. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. I recently read this one, and it's my first Crutcher book as well, but it definitely won't be my last! I loved it!

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