Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Book Review: Bodies to Die For

By Jami Denison

I believe I speak for almost all women when I say that since puberty, there has not been a single day in my life when I liked my body. Even the days when the number on the scale was relatively low, I still had body parts that were too big or floppy. These days, supposedly we’re in a body positivity moment, but with Ozempic advertisements all over my news feeds, along with ads for gastric bypass, plastic surgery, and fat freezing, it still seems like the only bodies that should feel positive are the ones that wear a size four or lower. And while Ozempic appears to be a miracle drug that cures all kinds of cravings, the side effects can be painful, or even deadly. But wouldn’t you risk death to have a body you loved?

In Lori Brand’s debut novel, Bodies to Die For, two women embody body type extremes. Gemma is a fitness influencer and body builder who’s haunted by the woman she used to be—Fat Gemma, who weighed 100 pounds more. Ashley is a morbidly obese software engineer who is sick and tired of being judged for her weight. When Ashley attends a session to learn about gastric bypass surgery, she’s thwarted by Lydia, who wants Ashley to embrace her body and fight for fat acceptance. But when Lydia’s plans start to become dangerous, and women in the body building influencer community start to turn up dead, Gemma could be the next victim.

Bodies to Die For starts with a huge bang. We’re in Gemma’s head, and while she seems to have it all—hot body, hot husband, millions of followers—Fat Gemma still torments her, and all she thinks about is the food she can’t have. Then we meet Ashley and see the abuse she gets just from living in her body, and the abuse she gives herself. These first few chapters are real and hard to read and should have a trigger warning for anyone who’s ever berated themselves for eating a piece of cake—in other words, all of us. 

As the book develops, another woman on the circuit—Bianca—is murdered, strangled by one of the waist cinchers she’s been promoting. Genna worries that she could be next, as she seems to be surrounded by suspects—her shifty husband, another rival, an incel fan, an obsessive client, her coach, etc. She doesn’t even know about Lydia, whose schemes get more outlandish, and who has a tendency to show up at Ashley’s covered in smoke and soot. Another woman in the industry dies. Then another.

I wanted to love Bodies to Die For, and the first few chapters broke my heart.  There’s so much good here, but I think first-time author Brand could have used a stronger editor. With Bianca’s death by waist cincher, the tone became uneven, and there were scenes with the fat activists that also bordered on funny. Since the book is being promoted as a psychological thriller, I found the humor distracting and sometimes borderline cruel to the characters. Further, there are so many different characters and different points-of-view, I had trouble keeping track of all of them. The inclusion of the incel character (who sometimes served as comic relief as well) felt like Brand was attempting to include issues broader than diet culture, and that was distracting.  

Still, I really liked Gemma and Ashley. I rooted for both of them to stop obsessing over their bodies, develop healthy habits, and get on with their lives. A twist near the end of the book is nicely foreshadowed and adds to the satisfying ending. 

Author Brand comes from the fitness industry, where she’s been a Playboy model, body builder, and group fitness instructor, among other careers. Her insider knowledge is obvious on every page, and her talent as a writer is undeniable. Still, I feel her natural voice is better suited to humor than thrillers. 

When confronting an athletic wear manufacturer who doesn’t make clothes in larger sizes, Ashley notes that 68% of women are considered plus size. The majority of women aren’t size four, but they also aren’t morbidly obese. I wished there had been another character in addition to Gemma and Ashley, who wasn’t a suspect, who could stand in for those of us who want to lose 10-15 pounds, and who are haunted by all the Ozempic ads on their news feeds.   

Thanks to Kaye Publicity for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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