Rachel, the protagonist of Melissa Broder’s new novel, “Milk Fed,” is a funny, smart 24-year-old secular Jewish up-and-coming comedian working as a talent-management assistant in L.A. She subsists, barely, on a “Spartan regimen” comprising ersatz foodstuffs. Breakfast No. 1, for example, is Nicotine gum, followed three to four hours later by a serving of zero-percent-fat yogurt sweetened with packets of Splenda (a.k.a., breakfast No. 2); a 160-calorie salad at Subway, and a 14-oz., 180-calorie serving of fat-free, low-carb frozen yogurt at Yo!Good (lunch); and, if she’s worked out for three hours at the gym, a frozen light-spaghetti dinner mixed with a tablespoon of sriracha, one sweet potato mixed with Splenda, one 100-calorie diet muffin top with four tablespoons of Cool Whip Lite—all eaten while standing up—and bonus: a pint of 150-calorie diet-chocolate ice cream mixed with a half-cup of Special K Red Berries cereal. She falls asleep with a Nicorette parked in her cheek.
The precise, tedious ritual of Rachel’s so-called diet—her disordered eating, to be clear—gives her a sense of feeling anchored, even as it eviscerates her. Which is much like her relationship with her mother, a fatphobic, narcissistic woman who has imposed this illness and toxic level of self-scrutiny on her daughter, even from across the country, in Short Hills, New Jersey. “[My mother] saw future pain, frightened that I would grow up to be like her parents, whose obesity had caused her shame, or her fat cousin Wendy, who was unhappy,” explains Rachel. She has convinced Rachel that she should want to “be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less …” Never mind the fact that her mom had been divorced from Rachel’s father for years.
So how do you reckon with a psychologically abusive mother, when she’s the only mom you have? Rachel’s therapist, Dr. Mahjoub, prescribes a 90-day communication detox—no phone contact, no texts, not even a single emoji. “You have to expect nothing [from her],” Dr. Mahjoub tells her. Rachel’s initial response is to feel empowered by her therapist’s words: “Why expect something if you could expect nothing?” But soon she finds herself transferring her yearnings for a maternal figure onto an older colleague, Ana, who bears an emotional resemblance to her mom in that “my mother persuaded me to stay thin by insulting me. Ana did it by insulting everyone but me. This absence of rejection felt like an embrace.” Ana is “the only maternal figure I had left. I wanted to please her more than ever.” So powerful is her need that she conflates it with desire, allowing herself to sexually fantasize about the older woman, whose cynicism she believes is a balm.
In another session, Dr. Mahjoub gives Rachel a special “Theraputtical” modeling clay with which to mold an image of “the ‘out of control’ woman you are so afraid of becoming.” It’s a cathartic exercise that brings Rachel to tears as she sculpts a luscious, full-figured female body, which she angrily shoves in a bag full of dry cleaning in the backseat in her car. When the sculpture disappears, she wonders whether her “Theraputtical” body has morphed into a golem—a figure from Jewish folklore created from mud or clay that can “function as a metaphor for that which is sought in the life of its creator.”
On the seventh day of her detox (the Biblical significance duly noted), her usual Yo!Good fro-yo purveyor—an Orthodox Jewish boy, who only doles out the recommended serving size—is suddenly replaced by his older sister Miriam, an “undeniably … irrefutably fat” young Orthodox woman around Rachel’s age who “exceeded my worst fears for my own body. But it was as though she didn’t know or care …” Because for Rachel, “love is when you have food in your mouth that you know is not going to make you fat. Fear is the day after you had food in your mouth that is going to make you fat.” Miriam is like Rachel’s golem come to life—and she swirls the fro-yo to the very top of the cup, blissfully showering it with toppings, and insisting Rachel eat every last bite with relish.
And Rachel, vulnerable after a full week of mom detox, and ravenous—for food, affection, love, companionship—slowly and steadily capitulates to Miriam’s efforts to feed her. All of Rachel’s appetites twist together like a fro-yo confection. She finds herself attracted to Miriam, who reveals herself to be a kindred, or at least complementary spirit, and one who bears three moles on her neck that match those Rachel had removed from her arm years ago. So much about Miriam is defiantly present where Rachel has been grieving absence—and she is falling in love with her for it. For her lack of self-consciousness, for her closeness with her own mother, her spiritual clarity, her embrace of her appetites for food and mid-century cinema and clove cigarettes, and her desire to be nourishing. Not unexpectedly, their instantaneous, intense friendship soon turns romantic and wonderfully sexual, fated though a same-sex relationship may be, especially between a secular Jew and an Orthodox Jew. But that’s only part of why Rachel is scared of taking this leap into uncertain waters—in the past, she found that “once [objects of affection] embraced me it was over.” She finds guidance in an unexpected source: the benevolent, whimsical ghost of late-16th-century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the creator of the most famous golem, who tells her: “Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Author Melissa Broder can make even a cranky secular-Jewish queer reader like me, who typically chafes at magical realism and wet-blankets flights of fancy, eagerly suspend disbelief. Broder, an award-winning poet and essayist who made her fiction debut in 2018 with “The Pisces”—a dark, funny, erotic story about a doctoral student who becomes romantically obsessed with a merman—has a rare ability to ground her fantasy in reality without undermining her her imaginative vision, making it feel personal and raw and relatable. In another writer’s hands, the two women and their relationship might have presented as little more than a literary device to lead us to Rachel’s awakening, and that certainly could have been effective. But Broder’s goes deeper than allegory—with humanity, sardonic wit, and erotic scenes so potent that the heat of my blushing face made my NYC-apartment radiator’s seem tepid, Milk-Fed vividly evokes the lives of each woman, so that we’re fully invested in them, whether or not they seem recognizable to us. It adds to the profound pleasure of following what could have been a too-familiar trajectory of a lost soul seeking meaning and finding love—because, as she initially grudgingly allows herself to capitulate to her appetites, she isn’t just learning how to love others, in her own way and on her own terms, but to love herself.
Scribner, 304pages, $26
Kera Bolonik is the editor-in-chief of DAME Magazine. Her nonfiction book, Gullible, is forthcoming from Dey Street Books/HarperCollins Publishers.