When I requested the eARC of this book from NetGalley and publisher Saga Press, I was apprehensive. From the publicity pitch alone I was nervous this would be one of those white feminist books that purport to provide deeper commentary on social issues but lack an awareness of intersectionality. Then I learned a bit more about Chana Porter, particularly that they are a Lambda Award winner, and I was reassured. Indeed, The Thick and the Lean is a worthwhile exploration of how we police bodies and minds.
Beatrice was born and raised in the religious community of Seagate. In this world, the prevailing religion views consumption of food in a puritanical way similar to how some conservative branches of Christianity view sex (and sex is, as you might expect, much less policed). Seagate polices food consumption even more intensely than mainstream communities. But Beatrice loves food and discovers she loves to cook, and it isn’t long before she sets her eyes on leaving. Meanwhile, Reiko uses her hacking skills to move up from life in the Bastian to the Middle and eventually sets her eyes on Above. Both women are influenced by a contraband book, a set of stories purportedly written by a kitchen maid who becomes enamoured of a king, which includes illicit recipes. As the years go by, their covert desires shape who they become and the actions they take in a world that seems increasingly fractured and fraught.
Huge content warning of discussions of food/eating disorders, purging, etc.
It is, of course, no secret that women in our society are socialized to have a problematic relationship with food. On the one hand, we are typically expected to take on a great deal of the preparation of food. On the other hand, we are policed and shamed if our bodies don’t fit whatever ideal is popular at the time, which often means we’re encouraged to restrict our food intake. Porter exaggerates these mores into a literal religion in The Thick and the Lean. The complex ways in which Beatrice’s internalized shame around food intersect with her feelings about sex, her attraction to people, her attraction to her own body, etc., are fascinating and really got me thinking about my own relationship to food and eating. Again, this could likely trigger people, even if you don’t necessarily have a history with an out-and-out eating disorder, so practise self-care when reading.
Beyond the literal interpretation of food restriction, of course, there are so many layers here. Beatrice’s membership in a cult or a strict religious denomination, the exit costs of leaving, its effect on her relationship with her parents—there are many ways one could read one’s own experiences into this, whether one is queer, comes from a highly religious community/family, etc. Porter explores the pain of exile and separation (even when voluntary), found family, and more. The parallel paths of Beatrice and Reiko’s lives are fascinating. Both are entranced by this book that they each come to in different ways, yet for very different reasons: Beatrice latches on to the recipes and the freedom promised through cooking; Reiko is fascinated by the rebellious existence of the maid. They are, respectively, the eponymous thick and the lean: Beatrice literally thick from eating, rich with family and connections; Reiko thin, angular, and isolated despite being in a relationship with someone who thinks he loves her.
The story kicks into higher and higher gear, and Porter has her characters grapple with their responsibilities to revolution in each of their capacities. Beatrice, as a chef in a society that marginalizes food, is inherently revolutionary—yet how much is she willing to risk as more and more people protest her proclivity? Reiko has put so much of her energy into creating a sham of a life so real that she has practically become that person, and when she sees her facade in danger of cracking, she has to choose—will she give in, continue being complicit in the literal rising floodwaters that threaten people she grew up with, just because it means an easier life for her personally? Or will she find a way to act?
Reiko’s journey in particular is interesting because, unlike Beatrice, she is not always a likeable character (though I would argue she is usually still sympathetic). I really like how Porter illustrates that oppressed people are not always going to be heroes. Plenty of oppressed people collaborate, oppress others, lash out, or simply try to survive even if that means propping up the system that oppresses them. At the same time, as Porter demonstrates through Reiko, such people always still have the capability to surprise you. We contain multitudes.
I also adored the worldbuilding in this novel, the way that Porter hints at a whole history that we never truly explore. Is this set in a far future Earth (but it has two moons??)? A planet colonized by our distant descendants? Just a different world entirely? In the end the answers don’t matter—this is set dressing, there to help us understand the allegory that Porter wants to tell.
Then there is the story-within-the-story of the kitchen maid. Chapters interspersed between Beatrice and Reiko’s narratives tell us of what happens to the maid and her romance with a king. It’s sweet. It’s a fairy tale too—I think its happy ending is meant to contrast the uncertainty of Beatrice and Reiko’s fates. Stories get wrapped up neatly, whereas real life is seldom so obliging. Beatrice will continue to take leaps of faith, not knowing where she will land. Reiko must reckon with her divided loyalties, her heritage, her desire for a safety that can only ever be illusory.
When you get right down to it, The Thick and the Lean is about the price of happiness. What would you do? Would you leave behind your family and all that you know? Would you steal? Kill? Betray? What does happiness even look like in a society that is antagonistic to your very being? (Oof, that last question hit home for me.)
I’m really happy I picked up this novel. The title and description initially turned me off, yet the author and the first few chapters were enough to change my mind. I will read more of Chana Porter when I can.