Matt is a teenager with no friends whatsoever and is constantly fighting for survival in the hallways, always up against three bullies who run the school: Bastien, Tariq and Ott, though Tariq is more of a friend to the other two than an actual mean guy. But he's going through enough of a tough time to understandably not care about school: his bigger sister Maya ran away from him and his mom and the family slaughterhouse business and is now on the lam, supposedly becoming a goth. Matt's mom does not want to get the police involved for fear of what that would do to her in the long run, such as records and punishments. Then Matt realizes something about the human body: After eating something, the body sends energy to absorb the nutrients, and your senses shut down. But without anything to digest, your senses heighten. Matt can almost read the minds of his tormentors, can almost predict the future, and before he knows it, he has superpowers, all at the cost of mocking pancakes and casseroles and a stomach daring him to end the pain. He decides he's going to try to starve himself so he can figure out what happened to Maya so Matt can get her back, and he has his eyes set on Tariq, who used to date her.
You know, one time I had a giant assignment due at midnight, and despite the fact I didn't procrastinate, I worked the whole day on it. I sat in my desk at college for four hours straight and then my stomach began to compress. It felt like a billion nails were fighting their way out, and I basically squirmed down the stairs to the cafeteria to have the two best jumbo hot dogs I've ever tasted. While reading most of The Art of Starving, I was reminded of that same sensation. Reading this boy going through thoughts, feelings, walks and troubles with a pain of an empty stomach made me reaching for an extra burger, or another bowl of cereal. While reading this book, I either gained five pounds from extra eating, or lost five pounds because my stomach kept flushing from the aforementioned pain. I can't tell you. I never weighed myself.
This is also an LGBT book, and yet I couldn't help but feel it didn't have to be. The premise was so intriguing, I felt having no romance would've been a bit refreshing. Still, it does manage to be cutesy and off-the-charts surprising, especially when there's a text message where we think we know the basis of what it's about but it's actually concerning a crush.
Miller also has a little bit of fun with the superpowers. The senses Matt talks about, from smelling years of butt on desk chairs to hearing conversations by touching a pipe that travels through the school to looking into the mind of a tormentor are all fun to behold, especially when you consider some of the real science displayed here. I always love when sci-fi books utilize the facts of our gravity-controlled no-superhero world, exploring the possibilities of the universe. When Matt manages to knock out the entire opposing dodgeball team and makes the coach swallow his whistle, I had a big smile on my face.
There is also quite some honest emotion in this. It discusses during a night out for Chinese food how people who have to pick strawberries for a living earn barely enough to survive yet CEO's work nowhere near as much but get paid gallons of briefcases. Matt also begins to feel bad about acts he makes and his mom feels she is at fault for the way the family is falling apart. Matt also smokes, something a protagonist doesn't usually do. To me it made Matt feel more of a flawed yet pitiful character.
Although I can't help but feel a distaste to quite a few parts of this book, like a steak with too much fat and not enough black pepper. There's nothing that clearly defines what makes Matt decide to starve himself. It simply opens up talking about his bullied life and being called a faggot. Like, did Matt one day go into a long sleep for two days and then woke up hungry and his senses somehow heightened? If something like that was described, I would've had no problem. I also found there to be too many technical thoughts, specifically trained on the rules Matt sets up for himself, and us, as the next chapter begins. There's also a scene involving sex, and though I'm always up for an LGBT book, the idea it had was a little too...disgusting. If you read the book you'll know what I'm referring to.
And when the book dives into its finale, at first I had hopes but it didn't live up. There are some books with much worse endings out there. But the big clash stops too abruptly and ends too early, there's an argument which I found unnecessary and depressing, and there's a completely unexplained story element involving Maya. There are two things in the ending I did like, one being a swift decision that felt fitting yet just popped in and the other being a twist in the last few pages that made me happy for Matt. But I wanted a big rumble and there wasn't. It ended before it could progress anywhere that I could almost feel it wanted to.
I learned in the Acknowledgments section that Sam J. Miller's father, Hyman, died from cancer shortly after HarperTeen agreed to publish this debut novel, and I feel terrible for his loss. I hope Sam lives his life like there's no tomorrow every day and stays happy with his husband. I also hope the next time I read a book by him, I'll come away more satisfied.