Since finishing Sam J. Miller’s incredible debut novel, The Art of Starving, a few weeks ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I’ve often found that the best way to let go of things, or, rather, to move on, is to talk about them out loud.
The Art of Starving is the story of Matt, a gay teenager who mistakes his anorexia for super powers. As we follow Matt along a path that threatens to tear him apart, the relationships between him, his family, and fellow students become ever more complex, layered, and interesting.
I’ve long been a fan of Sam J. Miller’s short fiction. All authors write about other people, but Miller is one of the rare breeds of writer, the best of the best, who pours himself into every word he writes. Not just because some of the elements and story beats from The Art of Starving match experiences from his own adolescence, but because each word, each phrase, every theme seems to reveal a piece him. There’s so much passion, energy, and emotion packed into his stories. The Art of Starving is no different. It’s not always an easy book to read—in fact, most of it is heartbreaking, gut-punching—but you feel so keenly attached to Matt that it’s impossible to put down.
Matt’s story isn’t my story. In high school, I had a strong core group of friends, and, thanks to being best friends with one of the more popular kids in our grade (who’s still my best friend to this day), I had the privilege of bouncing between social circles without issue. I was an introvert, like Matt, so didn’t always take advantage of this, but I also wasn’t pushed away. I was lucky. Where I did recognize myself while reading The Art of Starving, though, is in the passive bullying that occurs thanks to the book’s other major character, Tariq. Like him, I stood by while my friends said and did nasty things to other students. I stepped into stop them when things went too far, and generally kept the worst of it contained just by being there, but I shouldn’t have ever waited to step in. I shouldn’t have laughed. I shouldn’t have let it stand. I know that now in a way I didn’t then. Miller’s tender, compassionate writing, and his handling of the fragile, complex relationship between Matt and Tariq—as friends, adversaries, and more—reveal so much about the pressures of toxic masculinity on young men, and I learned a lot about myself by experiencing Matt’s tale from an unfamiliar perspective.
The way Miller juggles Matt’s eating disorder with his supposed superpowers is masterful. Even after the last page has been turned, I wondered about that relationship, and still can’t decide whether the fantastical elements in the novel were real, or a desperate cry for help. Perhaps they were both. Matt is a textbook example of a great, unreliable narrator, and Miller uses Matt’s deceptive nature—in the way that he lies to himself and others—as an effective weapon for keeping the reader off-balance and invested.
Perhaps The Art of Starving‘s most beautiful and important element is that Miller allows Matt his pain. Resolution comes slowly, and not through magic or anything otherworldly, but through love from his family and friends, emotional support, and a slow-growing understanding of how to love himself. The ending is messy and raw. It’s full of questions. Just like life.
The Art of Starving is a phenomenal novel, and a well-deserved finalist for the inaugural Not-a-Hugo award for Best YA Novel. Whether you’re into YA or not (it’s not something I read a lot of personally), The Art of Starving is well worth your attention.
Just make sure to bring tissues. It’ll make your heart ache.