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Book Report: Princess Ben

Catherine Murdock’s Princess Ben is one of those books that I find alternately delightful and annoying. I eventually came down on the annoying side, but it could have gone the other way. Ultimately, I suppose, the fact that one of my Sources of Reader Annoyance was aggravated at the end of the book did it for me. Plus that (for me) the Sources of Reader Pleasure were mostly short bits that slid in between the events of the book, while the Sources of Reader Annoyance were tied more closely to the plot.

The main annoyance, however, was Princess Ben’s body image and body. She begins the book as a big girl, overweight and fond of eating, and associating food with her mother’s love. When she becomes a miserable prisoner in a gilded cage, she responds by (a) eating for comfort and (2) taking a self-destructive delight in everybody’s disapproval of her body size. This is very plausible stuff, even if it isn’t very pleasant. However, the point is: she is fat.

Then, as happens to princesses in these sorts of books, she is forced to live like a peasant for a stretch of time, living on not much food and a lot of hard work. I don’t remember exactly how long this went on: probably more than a month and less than a year, let’s say. Now that I think about it, it’s possible it was exactly one year, or a year and a day. It’s that kind of book.

Anyway, of course, over the course of however long she is on short rations and long marches she loses weight and gains muscle tone. Upon returning to her castle with new purpose and discipline, she no longer eats for comfort, either, and no longer avoids exercise. She begins to take pride in her appearance, and submits herself to be groomed by her maids (but doesn’t submit herself to be made by her grooms, which would be an altogether different sort of book).

Now, here’s the thing: Ms. Murdock has Princess Ben mention that she will never be slender and willowy; there is some sense in which the author is trying to avoid having the Ugly Duckling turn into a swan. But all the other characters react to her as if she were suddenly a vision of beauty, without any trace of them altering their definition of beauty to eschew the willow and adopt the, um, sort of tree that is thick-trunked and curvaceous, pneumatic as they used to call it, the beobab? The desert rose? Anyway, I was certainly left with the impression that she was skinnier than she thought she was, and furthermore that Before Ben=fat=lazy, bad-tempered and selfish=ugly and After Ben=thin=disciplined, pleasant and nice=beautiful. And I suspect—I don’t know, but I suspect—that Ms. Murdock was trying to avoid the Beauty Myth stuff, and specifically write a book that would make an overweight kid feel good about herself, allow herself to imagine being the heroine and finding True Love and saving the kingdom and all that. And maybe other readers would have a totally different impression of the ending of that particular aspect of the book, but to me, it was an utter failure, teaching that sure, an overweight girl can become a heroine and find True Love and save the kingdom, just so long as she becomes thin first.

Which, as I said, tipped the whole book over to the annoying side for me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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