Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reflections of a Small Town Family

Published:  September 1st, 1991
What's Eating Gilbert Grape
By: Peter Hedges
Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13:  9780671038540

Just about everything in Endora, Iowa (pop. 1, 091 and dwindling) is eating Gilbert Grape, a twenty-four-year-old grocery clerk who dreams only of leaving.  His enormous mother, once the town sweetheart, has been eating nonstop ever since her husband's suicide, and the floor beneath her T.V. chair is threatening to cave in.  Gilbert's long-suffering older sister, Amy, still mourns the death of Elvis, and his knockout younger sister has become hooked on makeup, boys, and Jesus -- in that order.

But the biggest event on the horizon for all the Grapes is the eighteenth birthday of Gilbert's younger brother, Arnie, who is a living miracle just for having survived so long.  As the Grapes gather in Endora, a mysterious beauty glides through town on a bicycle and rides circles around Gilbert, until he begins to see a new vision of his family and himself...


       I did not even know this was a book until I ran across it by chance on Goodreads, on some list or another.  If you don't like personal reviews, abandon ship now because this shit's about to get real up-close-and-personal -- because this book was super-personal and self-revelatory for me as a human being.  That doesn't mean I will necessarily be gushing about it to everyone who asks for book recommendations, because I think this is a book that not everyone will understand.  Thank you Peter Hedges, you freaking bastard, for that unwanted look in the mirror.  I have a confession to make: I am Gilbert Grape.  We might not have the same name, live in exactly the same circumstances, or feel exactly the same about everything, but we are the same person where it counts the most.  We are the one who stays, the one who takes care of everyone else.  
       Gilbert Grape is someone who has gotten sucked into being the breadwinner and pretty much SOLE provider for his family, whom he both loves and hates at the same time.  He lives with his mother Bonnie Grape who is so obsese that the floor is caving in under her, his sister Amy who is selfless and good (and who deserves better than wasting her youth being mother to her siblings), his younger sister Ellen who is a pretentious brat (verging on slut at times) and his brother Arnie, who is mentally handicapped, never seeming older than five or six years old mentally.  Gilbert works at the local grocery store, that is slowly going under due to the new superstore in town.  He's worked for the owner Mr. Lamson for seven years, and believes in loyalty to the man (and the business) who has been a father figure/oasis for him in the midst of his family issues.  Also, Gilbert has been in a sexual affair with Betty Carver, the insurance man's wife, for about the same amount of time.  He feels trapped in by his family, his dumb-ass friend Tucker, his job, and Endora in general.  
       Things are building up and feelings are coming to head, as Arnie's thought-to-be-impossible eighteenth birthday draws nearer and the rest of the Grape siblings make their way home.  The Girl from Michigan also shakes things up for Gilbert, making him think of his life in new ways, even if they're not always pleasant or easy.  Can the Grapes begin to let go of past hurts and move on, or will they continue to stagnate, with Gilbert "shrinking," as Arnie puts it?  This was uncomfortable to the max.  I saw myself at the age I am now (24) working a dead end retail job, supporting my family because no one else can/will.  I am also not perfect.  In the moments Gilbert calls his brother a "retard" I see myself with my mentally ill mother, and I'm ashamed.  Not to say that I'm a monster, but I lose my temper too.  I am "shrinking," letting things go unsaid and being everything for everyone.  I also see myself in Momma & Amy, eating all of my feelings and multiplying in size.  But this novel is also hopeful, because as the ending tells us, nothing lasts forever.  Things, people and hardships cycle in and out of life.  A beautifully harsh portrait of the American Dream dying in the Midwest, only to be partially re-invented by the time the book ends.  A story that'll stay with me, but I don't see myself revisiting it often.  Highly recommended if you're brave and daring.

VERDICT:  4/5  Stars

*No money or favors were exchanged for this review.  This book is now available in stores, online, or maybe even at your local library.*

Favorite Quotes

"I'm told women scream when they give birth because of the intense pain.  And I think about how easily life can slide away, like thawing ice.  And how it's only the living that scream."

"You can tell the idyllic nature of a family by the upkeep of its picnic table.  Ours is its own indictment.  We are splintering and peeling.  We rot."

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