"The Universe is Expanding and So Am I" by Carolyn Mackler
Well over a decade ago, I came across a book called The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler.
I bought it — and I read it — without even the foggiest of notions as to what it would be about.
Although, in fairness, I did logically presume it would be entirely factual as it would, the title suggested, be about large butts, which we all know cannot lie.
What I found, to my delight, is that this book into which I had ventured blind was satisfying in ways I never could have predicted.
As a woman of a certain size, who use to be a teen of a certain size, I’ve always felt that the… social struggles… associated with walking around in a world where people are much less fluffy than you are were rarely accurately captured in literature.
But, seriously, don’t even get me started on Wally Lambs’ “She’s Come Undone” - As if all of the space in my tiny lady brain is consumed by perpetual preoccupation with my fleshy thighs or the globular fat that gathers under my skin
What I discovered from reading this book was that this author got it.
She got it in a way that so many others didn’t.
Unlike so many other plump protagonists before her, while fat is a thing that Virginia Shreves is, fat is not all she is.
Adding to the drama — and the discomfort — Virginia is not just in-the-midwest fat — where, arguably, being a bit on the chunky side is more acceptable. Instead, she’s trying to fit her swollen body into the social structure of a ritzy private school in New York — which, outside of LA, might be the worst possible place to be a bit on the chubby side.
Having had much time to reflect on this, I now know that the primary reason I enjoyed Mackler’s original novel so much is that I fell in love with Virginia, flaws and all.
So, when this book which is a motherfucking sequel landed on my desk, I was a bit… giddy… at the prospect of diving in.
Would I get to meet adult Virginia? — a woman who I could only presume would be much like myself.
Would she still be a bit on the heavier side? Or would she have gone on some Jennifer-Aniston-Inspired diet, eating nothing but Kale and drinking only the tears of unbaptized toddlers in an attempt to get the perfect frame? – Please God, let it be the former, I hoped.
What would have changed in her life in the 15-fucking-years since we had last seen each other?
Well, much to my surprise, not much.
Because, despite making her readers wait a decade and a half – A DECADE AND A FUCKING HALF – to hang with Virginia again, Mackler picked up only four months after the events that ended her previous Shreves novel.
When we rejoin the story, we find that the bloom is now off the rose in regards to Virginia’s romance with Froggy — yes, as in ribbit, ribbit — the boy that we spent the entire first book hoping Virginia would end up with.
But, as it would turn out, that's no problem because Virginia has a new potential love interest. Although — and I don't want to give anything away, so I'm being deliberately vague — there's something about this new gentleman caller that makes him a less than ideal romantic prospect.
Another source of conflict that appeared resolved at the end of TEMBAOBRT but, as it would turn out, isn’t is the legal trouble plaguing Byron, Virginia’s believed to be perfect brother who, in the first novel of this now duology, was fighting allegations of, essentially, date rape.
On a side note - it’s interesting how the lense through which I’m viewing these allegations is so different having aged the inarguably significant 15 years — like, seriously, I was a single 20-year-old study-abroad student when I read the first novel, now I’m a married 35-year-old freelancer and mother of 2. Also, the fact that I’m now viewing these events against the backdrop of the pervasive “Me Too” movement is certainly impactful.
In a nutshell, what we find as we move through this book is that the tied-up-in-a-neat-bow ending — which did always appear perhaps too tidy to be believed — wasn’t an ending at all, but instead the calm before the storm — which, really, is decidedly more realistic although ultimately less gratifying.
Describing the plot of this book beyond these admittedly nonspecific details is, I find, exceptionally difficult as this is one of those books that’s less about the events that transpire and more about the characters these events impact.
This book, like the one that came before it, is about Virginia.
I would say that she’s the sun in the center of this literary universe, but she’s nowhere near as impervious as the sun. She’s decidedly imperfect and exceptionally breakable.
And this is what makes her such a wonderful character and what makes this book such a refreshing delight.
I will almost certainly never know why it took Mackler 15 years to pen the follow up to what was a pretty-fucking-popular novel. But, ultimately, it doesn't matter.
I’m just glad that she did.
In the end, this novel turned out to be not so much a sequel as an extension that added depth to the original plot.
Sure, it contained some unlikely coincidences and implausible points that existed only to create drama.
But I didn’t care.
Because I just wanted to spend more time with Virginia.
Fans of the first book will be fans of this book as well. It retains the same charm and quirk and humor that made the first book sparkle.
We give it a strong four out of five cocktails.
Time to move on to another read — which is good because my TBR is off the fucking hook right now. Want to see which novel I select? Follow me, here.
I love character studies. Which character-centric novels do you love? Tell me about them in the comments, below.