Eating in books

I’m in the middle of listening to the third Maisie Dobbs novel on audio for the second time; I listened to it about a year ago, and then listened to the first and second novels in the series last spring and this fall. I decided to listen to the third one again partly for the pure pleasure of it, and partly to get the whole story in the proper sequence. I’m trying to get the fourth one from the library (although my library system is a little skittish about sending CDs from one library to another, which is annoying). I wonder what it would be like to read one of these books … I’ve come to associate them so closely with a voice speaking to me as I drive to and from work.

I’m not entirely sure, but I think in the third installment Winspear is ridding her prose of some of the tics that annoyed me a bit in the second book. One of these is the habitual list of clothing her major and minor characters, and even those who are too minor to count as minor characters, are wearing: e.g., “the assistant, dressed in a blue cotton dress and matching cap decorated with yellow piping ….” Everyone seemed to get this treatment.

A little more serious, in my opinion, is the way Maisie never eats. In the second novel, she’s always picking at her food, skipping meals, realizing she’s hungry and then losing her appetite, asking for just a bit of dry toast, please. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t play into any of the novel’s themes in any way; it’s just a habit, and one Maisie seems to have lost by the third novel. I hate it when people don’t eat! As I was listening, I was trying to figure out how Maisie made it through her days with no food in her stomach and why she didn’t pass out from hunger at least once. I believe in all the other ways Maisie is a perfect character — I’m happy to believe in her amazing intuition, her ability to read body language, her way with setting people at ease — but I don’t believe she can make it through a day without eating.

I realize I may sound a little odd complaining about this. I’m kind of sensitive about my sensitivity about food. But as someone who can’t stand (can’t stand!!!) to be hungry, ever, even for a short while (I think my illness has made this worse), I got so distracted by Maisie’s refusal to eat. When I don’t eat, trust me, you should stay far, far away.  I don’t quite get why other people aren’t the same way.

The not-eating thing feels like a quirk, but it also feels like a way of getting across the idea that Maisie is simply too important and too busy to spend much time or energy on food. It’s a way of saying she’s too wrapped up in her mind to take care of her body. Eating is too gross, too physical, and all Maisie’s energy has to go toward more ethereal things such as the mind and the emotions.

But, thank heavens, in the third novel, she’s finally recognizing she needs food; I just listened to a scene where she declares to her friend Priscilla that she’s starving and wants her lunch. Much better.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Eating in books

  1. Oh I do sympathise. I always wonder at characters in books who are described as skittish about their eating. But then I also get tetchy with books that make it impossible for their protagonists to reach a bathroom every once in a while for days and days. I do like fiction to represent physical realities!

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  2. verbivore

    I love that you notice this sort of thing in books – I do too. More often than not I am willing to accept the suspension of usual life activities for fictional characters but sometimes it’s too conspicious…especially if the author somehow brings it up.

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  3. I’m with you on the food. If I don’t eat I get grumpy and I feel physically ill. I don’t get people who forget to eat or don’t have time. As for the clothing, at least you know all the characters are well-dressed. Does she use clothing as an indicator of who the bad guys and the good guys are? That could redeem the excessiveness a little.

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  4. I’m with verbivore….I notice how daily routine is often left out yet accepted to be occurring…activities like eating or brushing your teeth.

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  5. Oh yes, I often wonder how people in books manage to do all they do without food. I didn’t notice Maisie not eating in the first book, but maybe her stomach becomes more fragile in the next two? And I’m with you: I must be fed something every 3-4 hours (it’s annoying, sometimes, but a fact of my life). On the other hand, I also wonder about characters like Stephanie Plum who eat huge amounts of food that’s horribly bad (doughnuts and pizza seeming to be what she eats most when not having platefuls of food and cake at her mother’s house), don’t gain thirty pounds, and still have energy to run around being bounty hunters.

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  6. Too funny. I don’t think I ever paid attention to that in the Maisie Dobbs books but next one I read you know I will! I can’t wait – the fifth book comes out in February I think. I hope you get the fourth one soon.

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  7. I’ve never understood people like that either–or people/or characters in books who “forget to eat”. It’s a rare day in my life that that ever occurs. Actually I’m not sure it has ever occurred!🙂 I haven’t read the books close together like you have, so it sounds as though Winspear and Maisie are both evolving, which is a good thing. I’ll have to pay more attention in the next book to these little idiosyncracies. Most authors don’t really say much about these personal habits unless they happen to be out of the norm (like not eating!). I think I do notice it then when it does happen.

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  8. The first Maisie Dobbs novel is on my TBR shelf and I must get round to it. I’m in need of a bit of light reading (especially after all the contemporary fiction I’ve been getting through recently), and I’m extra keen now that both you and Danielle have named her as the character you would most like to be.🙂

    Has there ever been any sinister hints about Maisie’s unwillingness to eat? She doesn’t have a psychological problem with food or anything like that?

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  9. Oh, I completely agree. While I don’t have to have food be focused on in novels (although I like it when it is – food is fun to read about) I need to know the characters are receiving some substance from somewhere, and I like what the choices say about them. I too hate it when people don’t eat – I just don’t understand it conceptually.

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  10. Definitely different people react to eating in different ways. I have found myself intensely studying something all day long and then realized that I hadn’t eaten. This doesn’t happen as much now as it used to, but still occurs occasionally. I have low blood sugar, so I have to put effort into staying calm when I miss meals.

    Perhaps you should try reading Nero Wolfe; he rarely misses a meal.

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  11. Hah, Litlove, it’s funny the way people notice different things — I don’t notice the lack of bathroom visits, although maybe I will now! But I can most definitely see how it would be annoying!

    Verbivore — yeah, normally I’m okay with suspending disbelief, but sometimes authors do draw attention to it in annoying ways, I’m guessing unintentionally.

    Stefanie — that’s exactly how I feel without food! And no, I haven’t noticed any meaningful pattern in the clothing descriptions, although perhaps I’m missing it. I think it’s just a habit.

    Josh, I suppose you can’t put it ALL in, but some recognition of those daily habits would be nice, wouldn’t it?

    Emily, who’s Stephanie Plum? I would find that SO annoying! And, no, I didn’t notice the food thing in the first novel, but it’s definitely there in the second, and a little bit in the third, although the third seems to have improved somewhat.

    Iliana — if I can’t get the audio, I’ll definitely get the book and read it the old-fashioned way — I’m not missing out on any of these!

    Danielle — I do think Winspear’s writing is evolving, and it’s fun to watch. The third book feels more polished to me than the second. And it’s fun to listen to them so close together; I notice more that way.

    Victoria — I don’t think she has any food issues, at least I haven’t noticed any (when you read them, do tell me if you see any!). The not-eating seems to be a more general sign of busyness and stress. She does tend to refuse any indulgences, including physical ones like expensive clothing and possessions — perhaps the not eating has something to do with this austerity and self-denial.

    Courtney — yes, I know people who will fast now and then, and not for religious reasons, and it doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not going to participate in a religious fast, but at least that’s not eating for a reason.

    Bikkuri — yes, people are very different in this way, and I should be careful not to get judgmental about it. I couldn’t make it through an entire day of work without eating!

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