On the Couch

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The protagonist of this novel about addiction, therapy, and recovery, confronts many of the same issues as its author.

A self-help guru finds herself spiraling out of control. Her therapist and her best friend have moved away and, just when she has to start promoting her book on how to stay skinny, she’s gaining weight. What to do?

Write a book about it. The result: Susan Shapiro’s Speed Shrinking. It’s called a novel on the cover, but this book is really an awkward hybrid that falls somewhere between fiction and memoir. Shapiro and her protagonist, Julia Goodman, are both authors of book on conquering nicotine addiction (Lighting Up and Up in Smoke, respectively) with the help of a domineering therapist. Both are married to TV/film producers who threatened to write rebuttals to their memoirs. Both hate the book Why French Women Don’t Get Fat (called French Women Are Never Flabby in the fictionalized version). And both started to expand a little when their closest confidantes suddenly disappeared—just in time for the release of their books on conquering food addiction.

In an interview with Editor Unleashed, Shapiro explained that she started Speed Shrinking as nonfiction but her editor said “it wasn’t dramatic.” So she upped the weight gain and made the story a little bit busier. But not much. Covering a year in the life of a successful, happily married author who happens to be a little chubby, her resulting novel circles around a whole lot of nothing.

In Julia’s world, the controlling therapist and the best friend move away at the same time. On top of that, the (surprisingly sane) husband gets a job in Los Angeles. Having successfully given up cigarettes, pot, alcohol, bread and gum, she finds herself sinking back into bad habits—specifically, cupcake icing. (Loving descriptions of sugary topping are some of the most moving parts of the book.) With her new book on how to conquer food addiction out in a few months, a desperate Julia tries a series of shrinks to keep her weight under control—giving “speed shrinking” its clever double meaning.

Susan Shapiro

Susan Shapiro

But Julia is so reflexively self-diagnosing that it’s hard for a reader to get a thought in edgewise. She and her father share “the same genetic addictive tendencies.” Her problems stem from parental neglect, growing up as the only daughter in a group of boys and then moving to New York instead of staying in the Midwest. She seeks out male therapists for the approval she never got from her father, and mentors younger authors to replace the daughters she never had. All of this is spelled out for us, and Shapiro doesn’t give Julia a chance to reveal herself as a full character. For all her aggressive strangeness, she’s the least interesting person in the book.

Even her food obsession, the central crisis of the novel, turns out to be something less than a crisis. Julia decides there’s nothing really wrong with her—she just wants to lose some pounds. “It appears the most original, radical, shocking stance I can take is to love myself while still wanting to weigh 128,” she says after another therapist refuses to be her diet doctor. Another tells her, “You look fine and your weight talk is superficial and trite.” It’s easy to sympathize.

Shapiro’s other characters come off a little better. Both the autocratic Dr. Ness and his replacement, the laidback Dr. Cigar, can actually be funny and genuinely surprising. Her affable husband isn’t particularly interesting, but his one-liners are a welcome relief from the whirling dervish inside Julia’s head.

Shapiro manages to rub together some entertaining drama when the old therapist betrays her and the new one gets uncomfortably close. And there are occasional flashes of human emotion in her interactions with her family. (The best friend is a selfish non-entity.) But these conflicts play out in a shallow pool, and Speed Shrinking is more concerned with up-to-the minute minutiae (Spanx, Facebook, Sarah Palin) that all but ensure it will go stale as quickly as a gourmet cupcake.

The book’s big joke is that Julia is a self-help guru that can’t help herself. Far from figuring everything out, she’s built up a fantasy of having been healed through addiction therapy when what she really got out of it was a publishing deal. Fittingly, her advice to all her struggling friends is to write a book. Maybe it worked the first time, or even the second. But as any recovering addict knows, sometimes it’s better to just say no.

Rachel Weiner is a politics editor at The Huffington Post. She lives in Washington, DC. More from this author →