In That Summer (2021), Jennifer Weiner illuminates both the individual cruelty of an entitled teenage boy and the everyday misogyny of a privileged male lawyer. Both take advantage of women named Diana.
Daisy Shoemaker is Hal’s wife. They have a house in the suburbs and a 15-year old daughter Beatrice, who is giving them some trouble in the prep school she’s attending as Hal’s legacy.. Beatrice is artsy and 100% herself, with a strong sense of justice. Daisy keeps the house, cooks actual from-scratch meals every night, and runs a small business on the side giving cooking lessons. Her real name is Diana, but Hal had renamed her early in their relationship, asking to call her Daisy.
Daisy meets Diana through a misplaced email, since she still uses DianaS@earthlink as an email that she’s had since high school, but she keeps getting messages sent to a Diana.S@earthlink. The other Diana lives a glamorous life as a consultant in New York, Daisy surmises from the misplaced invitations she keeps getting. One sleepless night, they have an email conversation and Diana invites Daisy to the City. They meet for a drink and get along–Diana is a few years older than Daisy, but Daisy has had so few friends as an adult that she is thrilled when she seems to make a connection.
There is a parallel story of an unnamed girl who goes to Cape Cod the summer she is 15 to babysit for a college professor. She meets a boy on the beach and hangs out with him over many weeks, but things go awry at the end of the summer when she meets the boy for a party, drinks too much, and is then raped. She doesn’t tell anyone, not then, and not when she gets home, withdrawing from life. She barely gets through high school, and finds a job cleaning college buildings at night so she doesn’t have to interact with people.
The most interesting part of the book is that you can guess that the unnamed girl is Diana–but how does the shattered girl become the Diana that meets Daisy–the glamorous business consultant? I loved how Weiner created the suspense and kept it going.
I know that Weiner has a huge following and fan base (this is her 18th book in 20 years), and that her work and her personal choices have sometimes been problematic (she personally had bariatric surgery). Although her books have often been touted as body positive, I plan to do a post about how it is anti-fat biased at the same time.
Her portrayals of fatness in That Summer are complicated. As shown on the cover, neither woman is thin. In fat activist circles, they might be described as “in-between”–as in between thin and fat. Later, Daisy describes herself as a “size fourteen” with “limited fashion options.” While neither character would have to deal with the consequences, inaccessibility, and stigma that truly fat people have to deal with, both are subject to the culture’s expectations that they be as thin as possible, and are bombarded with media that only shows very thin women.
Weiner seems to acknowledge that fatphobia exists, but her characters don’t seem to feel like they can do anything about it. On the second page, Diana tries on a bikini before going away for the summer–Weiner describes that she “sucks in her stomach and regrets the stretch marks that worm across her thighs. A couple of pages later, another babysitter who is described as “curvy” says that in Nantucket “they don’t let fat people off the ferry” and that she “felt hideous.” Weiner described Daisy’s husband, Hal, “his shoulders still broad and his belly still flat”, while Daisy described herself as “short and dumpy.”
Weiner also seems to buy in to the idea that fat women are fat because they’ve eaten too much due to some trauma. After the rape, Diana seems to develop an eating disorder, eating so much that she gets sick. In Provincetown, she feels “large, and drab, and clumsy.” But as she walks on the beach, swims in the ocean, and bikes around the area, presumably losing weight as she does so, she feels stronger. To Weiner’s credit, she doesn’t say that Diana loses weight or that her body size changes, but the activity is assumed to have that result.
As rare as positive fat women characters are, positive fat male characters are even rarer. Michael Carmody, a caretaker on the Cape, and Diana’s love interest, is a fat man, and also the kindest, most patient, sweetest person in the book. But Weiner falls into gratuitous anti-fat bias when she describes him. She described him climbing into his substantial truck that “seemed to sag a little beneath his bulk.” and “the truck’s springs seemed to sigh in relief as he climbed out.” When he asked her out, Diana noted to herself that he “resembled John Candy more than John F. Kennedy Junior.” Except for the last description, it didn’t seem like fatness was being used as a neutral descriptor. None of this was necessary, and it was hurtful to read.
But then, after having written derogatorily about Michael, Weiner describes that when Diana and Michael finally sleep together, he mentions having tried Atkins over the winter while patting his substantial belly. Diana tells him that she doesn’t want him to lose weight, not able to explain that she liked his size, since he was “solid and substantial enough to shelter her and keep her safe.” This is a much more fat-positive description.
All in all, That Summer has both anti-fat and fat positive portrayals of fat people. I thought Weiner’s portrayals of female friendship and the everyday misogyny present in many hetero marriages were accurate, and I did enjoy the read. But reader beware, some portrayals do reinforce anti-fat bias. As a prominent, bestselling author with a huge following, who has been fat (and probably would be considered an in-betweenie right now) I wish Jennifer Weiner would do better.