Milk Fed might make you hungry. Milk Fed might make you horny. Milk Fed might make you believe in god, or in love, or at least make you want to try. Hungry, horny, and trying to believe are three of the most predominant modes in which Rachel, the main character of Melissa Broder’s new novel, operates. Rachel has a rigorous system to maintain control of her weight, and thereby her life. Chain-chewing nicotine gum; protein bar and low-cal yogurt regimens; regular evenings on the elliptical or the stationary bike; and a weekly night on stage at a comedy club are Rachel’s favorite means of feeding her existential hunger for approval. This is a deep hunger, directed first at her mother, and then, after her therapist encourages her to take a 90-day communication detox, her judgmental coworker, the older-but-still-beautiful Ana. There are not many other people in Rachel’s life to approve or disapprove of her, not counting the revolving tourist-filled audience at This Show Sucks. Then Rachel meets Miriam, an obese Orthodox Jewish woman Rachel’s age, who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop. Miriam is everything Rachel is not: religious, easygoing, indulgent. Miriam is everything Rachel fears she might become: “Amorphous. Out of control. Disgusting. Exploding.” Rachel speculates that she conjured Miriam into existence through a therapy exercise during which she sculpted those fears. It does not take long for Rachel to fall in love. And love, in this case, is transformative.
Broder’s first novel, The Pisces, encounters and explores the question of emptiness and fullness in a way that is similarly erotic and romantic. As Jia Tolentino writes, “The Pisces convincingly romances the void.” It’s a story that should be weird (a washed-up PhD candidate falls in love with an emotionally unstable but very sexy and sexual merman) but reads like realism (aside from the merman sex, which, while necessarily fantastical, is undeniably erotic). When I finished reading The Pisces I felt that I had come to a revelation with the main character, Lucy: what is love, if not sticking around, seeing things through, being there for the people and pets and work to which we’ve made commitments? Milk Fed takes this question further. If love is responsibility, what is self love? What is our responsibility to ourselves?
Over pages teeming with mouthwatering descriptions of food—frozen yogurt sundaes that drip with sprinkles and hot fudge and strawberry sauce; the Golden Dragon’s kosher pu pu platters and wonton soup and noodles and chicken and steak; a Shabbat feast at Miriam’s family’s home; the fast food and bakery binges that Rachel increasingly allows herself—Rachel sheds her hollow obsession with self image that her mother instilled in her. When she’s around Miriam, she’s comfortable with consumption. And as she becomes more comfortable with consumption, she is herself consumed by a new desire. The more Rachel eats, the more Milk Fed reveals itself as a surprisingly trans book. As Rachel’s commitment to the status-quo of her feminine self image wanes, she steps out of the gender binary still further, exploring a boyish, at times manly, facet of her identity. Midway through the book, for instance, she’s at the gym, her skin chafing against suddenly too-small workout clothes. She pedals on the stationary bike, and starts to fantasize that the bike seat is her cock. In the fantasy, she is powerful, completely in control, not of Miriam, but of Ana, the mother-stand-in from her office. It’s a satisfying scene to read, and one that is satisfying for Rachel to experience. Not only is she met, in her mind, with the motherly approval, she is wanted by the matron, and the matron does exactly what Rachel wants. This is one of the driving hungers in the novel.
But real, physical hunger also drives here. Rachel’s empty body could never have had the strength to pedal herself to orgasm. Having fed herself physically, she has the energy to feed herself spiritually. “‘It’s a mitzvah, you know,’” Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel tells her in a dream. “‘I just came to let you know that it’s nice to see you trusting your kishkas.’” ‘Kishkas’ mean your intuition, which the Rabbi also refers to as your guts. The line between body and mind, belly and mind, is drawn with a fat-tipped pen. Rachel starts to eat like “normal people… It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.” And giving her body what it wants is where her power lies, a power far more resonant than the neurotic control she exerts at the beginning of the novel.
Milk Fed, like The Pisces, is compulsively readable. However, unlike the Pisces, where Lucy determines only in the last pages to give dry land a last chance for the sake of her sister, it ends on more than a hopeful note. Rachel, having left behind her yearning for motherly and societal acceptance, has taken on a new look, a new confidence, and a new career in comedy. She loves herself now, enough to make up for what was missing from her mother. We know because she feeds herself.