This effortlessly sweet debut YA novel touches on several very common insecurities in young people worldwide, and gently guides readers through how to cope with them via its smart, if sometimes reactive, heroine Charlie Vega.
Charlie is a sixteen year-old who’s never been kissed, tho she often imagines what it might be like in the fiction and fan fiction she writes so much of in her spare time. She worries that she’s never had a boyfriend because she’s fat, a fear that’s constantly underlined by her mother Jeanne. Since the death of Charlie’s dad, Jeanne has lost a lot of weight and now pressures Charlie to do the same, foisting weight loss shakes (bad) and joint exercise classes (actually healthy) on her. Charlie often feels that Jeanne would rather have Amelia, her gorgeous track star best friend, as a daughter instead.
After a crushing humiliation at the hands of her biggest crush, Charlie is ready to give up on love. She’s thus caught unawares by the strength of her attraction to Brian Park, a classmate whom she’s never really noticed till they start working together at their after-school job. He’s sweet and funny and cute, and their relationship slowly but surely develops… until Amelia mentions that he’d asked her out first. Unwilling to be second-best in yet another aspect of her life, Charlie decides to break up with Brian despite the strength of their mutual affection. But is this just another one of the ways she self-sabotages in order to cope with the overwhelming messages society sends her about never being good enough because she isn’t model-thin and pretty?
As a person who grew up with a self-absorbed, highly critical mother, I deeply sympathized with Charlie and her pain. Jeanne’s the kind of person who always has to be right which, for the record, isn’t a minor personality quirk but a huge character flaw. Charlie’s struggles to deal with her mom — and her resignation to never really being very close the way her other friends are with their moms — struck a deep chord with me. I wore straight sizes until my 40s, after my first miscarriage precipitated a weight gain that I freely admit has a bit of a psychosomatic component to it. But because of my mom, I’ve always felt like I was fat, because I couldn’t wear X-Small and 00s like my younger sister could (never mind that I wore Medium and 6-8 most of my life.) Because of my mom, I’ve always felt hyper-sensitive to how pop culture pressures girls to be thin and attractive, as if that should be our main goal in life. I wish I’d had a book like Fat Chance, Charlie Vega when I was younger to assure me that it’s okay to accept myself for who I am, and that having a mom who was terrible in this way is something I can survive.
I also understood a lot of what it’s like to live in the shadow of brilliant, beautiful best friends, tho in fairness I was also that friend to others too, tho never on purpose. I really thrilled to the sensitive depictions of first love and first handholding and first kisses, as I was a late bloomer myself. Granted, that was in large part due to the cultural differences between here and where I grew up in Malaysia: it’s certainly far different in the US where kissing is practically a high school rite of passage. I didn’t super love how Charlie over-reacted to Amelia’s revelation, but it was understandable given the framework, and I’m glad she finally chose to prioritize herself and her happiness after struggling to perfectly play roles in other people’s lives for so long. It’s always good to view yourself as the main character in your own life, so long as you’re aware that everyone else is also the main character in theirs. The important thing is to treat each other and ourselves with the kindness and consideration we want others to treat us with in turn, as this book so expertly shows.
Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado was published February 2 2021 by Holiday House and is available from all good booksellers, including