This is Not a Love Song

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am

This is Not a Love Song

by Karen Duve

Bloomsbury, $159

If you pick up This is Not a Love Song expecting to find a Helen Fielding-type heroine and plot, you'll be disappointed. German writer Karen Duve's leading lady is far from the optimistic, triumphant women found on the pages of mainstream chick-lit.

Duve's protagonist is fat, unaccomplished, angst-ridden and eroded by low self-esteem. She's suffered depression, battled anorexia and bulimia, and endured the anguish of self-harm. Life growing up at home offers no solace. She's alienated from her more attractive brother and sister, indifferent to her mother, and left broken by her father: 'Can't you leave me alone? Do you have an Oedipus complex or what?'

The only thing Anne has in common with any of her more light-hearted counterparts is a longing for a man she knows she can never have.

We first meet thirtysomething Anne on a plane bound for London. She has invited herself to stay with Peter Hemstedt, a teenage sweetheart who has become something of an obsession. The last time she saw the 'insignificant' Peter was five years ago, when she picked him up in her taxi. She thought she was over him, but, after dropping him off, she had to pull over because she was crying so much.

Sadness plays a big part in Not a Love Song, but it's sadness treated lightly. And despite the humiliation that has underscored her life, Anne gets on with things in a way that's refreshingly endearing.

She's resilient, too. Her decision to get on a plane and confront Peter, just to confirm he has no feelings for her, is an example. She's used to dealing with rejection: 'He didn't love me when I was young and beautiful, and I haven't exactly improved my chances.' When she last saw him she weighed 65kg. Now, she's 107kg.

Eating without conscience ended for Anne at 11, when her teacher weighed each pupil and turned the results into maths problems. Anne was the second-tallest girl in the class, and also the second-heaviest, weighing in at 42kg. She longed to be the 28kg girl and embarked on her first diet - an event 'more significant than the greatly overrated experience of losing your virginity'.

She's happier alone with food than around other people (or so she says), and obsessing about weight is the only constant in her life. She displays a steely exterior, but fantasises about being a heroine who's finally acknowledged by the people in her life.

Despite her desire to be accepted, Anne does little to nurture friendships, and makes even less effort with men. Axel, Hoffi, Dirk, Yogi, Ole, Felix and Olaf, to name a few, have all shown interest. But it never lasts and she spends most of the time hoping they'll disappear, or die.

There's no happy ending for Anne, although she does get unexpectedly close to Peter. It's not the fairy-tale conclusion she was craving.

This is a tale of drudgery that picks at emotional pain so intensely that you won't be able to put it down. Just don't expect a Reese Witherspoon-inspired euphoria when you do.