|Venus of Chalk
By Susan Stinson
208 pg, $14.95
Susan Stinson, author of FAT GIRL DANCES WITH ROCKS, has crafted
another quirky and fascinating novel, this one about a woman named
Carline whose seemingly well-ordered life cracks in two one night when
she is accosted by cigarette-flicking young toughs. With her lover,
Lilian, out of town at an important poetry slam, Carline has no one to
help her deal with this new indignity, and she finds herself falling
into an emotional whirlpool from which she doesn’t know how to escape.
Carline is a woman of size – in other words, she is extremely fat.
“Fat. It always came back to that… Vicious comments on the street,
carefully worded references to ‘professional appearance’ in job
reviews, suddenly masked looks on the faces of friends; at this moment,
hatred was all I could see, all I could breathe, all I was” (p. 20). A
crisis looms over her life.
Carline works as an administrator in a home economics program and
specializes in pamphlets that help homemakers. Despite distributing
information and assistance to women on five continents, Carline is
dismayed that so few people pay attention to the details that are
critically important to her. She is thwarted because “(p)eople who
thought home economics was just pie crusts and vacuuming occupied every
station in life; they outnumbered, perhaps, those who believed home
economics no longer existed” (p. 15). In her own little home economics
world, Carline has barely let into her consciousness the fact that her
job doesn’t seem meaningful, nor does much of her life. It is as if she
has let her extra weight insulate her from true feeling, preventing any
awareness to permeate and spur her toward needed change.
So when Carline is accosted by the young toughs and her fragile sense
of self is knocked completely askew, she stews for a day. Then her aunt
Frankie from Chalk, Texas calls to report the death of a dear friend.
Carline quits her job, packs a bag, and takes off on a bus trip with
two odd fellows, Mel, who usually rides the bus with her, and Tucker,
the driver, who is taking the old bus across the country to Dallas
where it can be auctioned.
The trip Carline takes is both internal and external, and little of it
went at all like I expected. I don’t want to ruin the surprises of the
story, but suffice to say that there are several unexpected turns, each
of which causes Carline to come closer and closer to confronting her
own fears and pain and anguish. It takes her a long time to come to
grips with the fact that she has “kept going under, shaking myself out
of it, then falling again into fear and self-hate. The worse part was
that it seemed so ordinary. I needed to stop” (p. 179). The tale of
this journey “to stop” is filled with good writing, gold nuggets of
description, and insightful narrative. The author has offered up a real
jewel of a novel, featuring a character at times awkward, at times
selfish, but ultimately compelling and sympathetic as she moves forward
in her quest for understanding.
Stinson’s previous novel, FAT GIRL DANCES WITH ROCKS, focused on a
17-year-old fat teen and her struggles with societal meanness about fat
women and girls; VENUS OF CHALK takes on some of the same issues and
expands upon them by showing a woman, several years older, dealing with
the similar pain, misunderstanding, and self-loathing. The journey
Carline takes, dealing with awkward relationships, past pain, and
internalized homophobia (and fat-phobia as well), makes for an
engrossing read. Do not miss this one. VENUS OF CHALK is one of the
best books of the year.