Book Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges, was first published in 1991 by Simon & Shuster. This 2014 edition is a re-release from Fox, Finch & Tepper, the publishing arm of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, whose aim is to “rediscover undercelebrated books with a strong sense of place and memorable characters.” The Grape family, of whom the titular Gilbert is the fourth of six mostly grown children, are certainly memorable. Their father committed suicide by hanging himself in their basement fifteen years before the story opens. Their mother reacted to this family tragedy by consuming so much food over the intervening period that her weight has made the floor sag beneath the television chair she all but lives in. If something isn’t done soon she will likely meet her end in the same room as her late husband by falling through the floor.

Gilbert hates what his family has become. His Elvis loving eldest sister, Amy, is run ragged trying to look after everyone since their mother abandoned maternal duties to concentrate on eating while watching endless TV. His elder brother, Larry, who discovered their father’s body, left home when he could no longer bear to spend time in the place. Their sister, Janice, was sent to college and now flies in to offer advice before escaping to her life free from the drudge of daily family obligation. It is left to Gilbert to support Amy in looking after their younger brother, Arnie, a seventeen year old who was not expected to live beyond toddler-hood and who has many mental and physical conditions that keep him thinking and acting that age.

Gilbert has worked in the same local grocery store since he was at school, going full time as soon as he finished with formal education. He is in a rut but, with his family as it is, cannot see a way to climb out and change the direction his life is taking. The small town where the Grape family has always lived offers no privacy, from either the well-intentioned residents or the voyeuristic. Gilbert has ended up conducting an affair with an older, married woman. He despairs of what he has become and dreams of escape.

The plot weaves itself around two pivotal events.

Firstly, a pretty young girl, Becky, arrives in town leading to jealousy from Gilbert’s younger sister, fifteen year old Ellen, and a flurry of eager interest amongst Gilbert’s male friends who are desperate to acquire girlfriends for the bodily benefits this brings. Gilbert is also enchanted by Becky but what remains of his self-esteem requires that he not admit to how he feels, about this or anything else.

The second event is Arnie’s impending eighteenth birthday. His mother has, for many years, repeated a mantra:

“I don’t ask for much. Just let me see my boy turn eighteen. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

Her children are therefore organising a party to celebrate their brother’s big event. Organising anything is a challenge in a home where essential chores go undone and siblings rant and rail against the hand life has dealt them. Not only is the house under strain but so are each of the family members. There is constant tension between the siblings. This is a family that has been in crisis for more than a decade, holding together by the most tenuous threads of thankless duty that, along with the trauma of past events, have strangled the spaces where love should be.

As the seismic plates under the Grapes’ shift an earthquake is all but inevitable. What is in question is the magnitude and what will collapse as a result of the oscillations.

I chose this book based on a recommendation from Markus Zusak at an event on his Bridge of Clay Tour last year. In many ways the first half of the Gilbert Grape reminded me of Bridge of Clay. This concerned me somewhat while reading. I wondered if Zusak had not been as original as I had given him credit for. I need not have worried. The second half of the book took the Grape family in a different, equally compelling, direction. The denouement is somewhat shocking but also moving and quite brilliantly rendered.

Although sizable, albeit not excessive, the story warrants its number of pages. Character development is key but the reader is trusted to understand what is being portrayed. The writing is taut yet engaging with tightly plotted action and droll witticisms. Emotion is more powerful because it is underplayed.

In the introduction the publisher writes:

“the Grapes aren’t exactly the most pleasant company – most of the time they’re a bunch of dysfunctional, warring oddballs, and arguably Gilbert is the worst of them all.”

It is the complexity of the family interactions, the despairing dark humour of Gilbert’s responses, that invoke reader sympathy. I came to care what happened to each of the Grape siblings. They may not be ‘nice’ but this is reassuringly authentic. Their travails and stuttered team work in the face of societal judgement, their inability to move forward anchored as they are by their mother’s behaviour, has the reader cheering from the sidelines in hope of them somehow finding a way out of the mire they had no choice over being submerged in.

A strong story that grew more enjoyable as I came to understand why the characters behaved as they did. A satisfying and recommended read.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is published by Fox, Finch & Tepper.