Book Review

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder Explores the Forbidden Joy of Indulgence in Her Latest Novel, ‘Milk Fed’

Maria Chance
May 14th, 2022 2:33 am

When we first meet Rachel in Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed, she’s counting calories with fussy meticulosity. She follows a strict food regimen to maintain what she considers her perfect weight and perfect look. If she goes over her allotted calorie count, she’ll have to run extra hard on the elliptical machine or limit herself to a couple of power bars for lunch and maybe a piece of nicotine gum for dessert.

Rachel can’t help it, though. She’s the product of her overbearing mother’s conditioning, a woman who, when Rachel was a child, would monitor every bite that made it into her mouth, pushing Rachel to have an eating disorder. The only thing that eventually compelled her mother to seek help for her was the fact that an eating disorder could be a hazard to Rachel’s fertility.

Rachel knows she lives on an extreme. This is why she’s in therapy and why her therapist suggests that she cut off communication with her toxic mother – the root of all her issues with self-image – for 90 days. However, it will take a lot more than cutting her mother out before Rachel can begin to relax around food.

That moment inches closer when Miriam shows up as a new shop attendant at Rachel’s favorite frozen yogurt shop, Yo!Good. Unlike her regular attendant, Miriam breaks Rachel’s yogurt regime and pours her more frozen yogurt than she asks for. Rachel solves this small “blunder” by scooping off the excess into a trash bin behind the store, where no one can see her.

Still, Yo!Good is the one indulgence Rachel allows herself – even if it’s a calculated indulgence. She can’t stop going there even as Miriam is insistent on filling Rachel’s cup past her requested limit, pushing her to try toppings she’d rather die than ever allow inside any corner of her mouth.

But Rachel is also too embarrassed when she’s found attempting to repeat the trash bin incident and is forced to eat the dessert in its entirety – extra calories and all – in front of Miriam, rather than seem like a madwoman scooping off yogurt into a bin. What she finds is that Miriam has a unique talent when it comes to yogurt combinations, and Rachel can’t hold herself back from scooping every last bit of the yogurt, and its exorbitant toppings, into her mouth, relishing every last bite.

For Rachel, a door has opened. For the rest of that day, since her calorie count is already out the window, she decides to let herself eat everything she’s been denying herself for years. Donuts, cakes, chips, pizza – the list is endless. When Miriam invites her to join her at her favorite Chinese restaurant and knows just what to order, teaching Rachel how to eat the right combinations of food for the most flavor impact, Rachel finds that she doesn’t want to stop. Leaning into a new indulgent lifestyle, Rachel and Miriam become quick friends with Miriam eventually inviting Rachel over to her family’s house for Shabbat, where she gets a glimpse into Miriam’s traditional Jewish orthodox upbringing.

Soon Rachel finds herself having sexual fantasies about Miriam. She stumbles into an impromptu liberation of her suppressed self, leading her to pursue Miriam as more than a friend, despite her own mother’s disapproval of her bisexuality and Miriam’s own strict and old-fashioned parents. She feels bold enough to try on a more gender-neutral, minimalist physical appearance as she chops all her hair off and starts wearing “power clothes” – pin-striped blazers and pants – as well as a continuing desire to fill herself up with all the food and flavors she can get her hands on.

Through Rachel, Broder explores all the things from which we as human beings are always limiting ourselves, the things that we are most guilted on: our appetite for food, sexuality and physical appearance. Broder exposes the many ways in which we deny ourselves happiness for fear of what other people will think. We neglect our own wants and needs to avoid being shamed by people who won’t understand what it’s like to be attracted to someone of the same gender and try to fit within society’s expectations of how people of a perceived gender should look and act.

Once Rachel allows herself to have a taste of that which she’s craved and denied herself her whole life, at first she overindulges. But as her journey progresses, she begins to find balance: eating whatever she wants but until she’s full, no more and no less. With this door open, Rachel begins to explore other previously self-curtailed aspects of her personality – never allowing herself to openly discuss her attraction to women as well as men, the power she feels when she walks into a barbershop and asks the barber to chop all her hair off, standing firm in her decision even as he objects. Rachel finds that she can reach for all the things she’s been warned against and still live a fulfilling life, with not one single person hurt by her personal choices – well, except her mother’s ego.

Milk Fed is an insightful and stimulating read that will have its readers wondering about the areas of our own lives where we could attempt to be more ourselves and allow ourselves to ask for what we want – societal judgment be damned. It’s thought-provoking and inspirational, as well as captivating in its witty, no-nonsense prose style, though sometimes giving way to more poetic passages – the narrative itself refusing to fit in a box.

Milk Fed is a win for Broder, checking off boxes for entertainment as well as for thoughtful literature. If you seek a narrative that’s fun and bordering on anarchic, turning its proverbial middle finger to antiquated social norms, then this is the book for you.

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About the reviewer

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Maria Chance
  • Freelance Developmental Editor
  • Book Reviewer & Editor

A self-proclaimed hermit and potential cat hoarder, Maria lives in Virginia where she writes, proofreads and copy edits as a freelancer. Her longstanding love affair with books began when her mother would fall asleep reading bedtime stories to her. (Don't worry; she was sure to wake her up so she could finish.) Now, as an adult, Maria struggles with a reading vice that has often threatened the hygiene of her home. On the few occasions that her nose isn't buried in a book, she enjoys exploring new cities, having margaritas with her sister, and curling up with a book--wait, what?