Myrtle of Willendorf
by Rebecca O'Connell

Front Street Books, 2000. ISBN 1886910529.
Reviewed by Melanie Alberts
Posted on 12/02/2002


Inside every fat woman, goddess-power is waiting to come out. That power may be elusive; but once harnessed, great things can happen.

High school junior Myrtle Parcittadino is invited to join a coven of goddess worshippers. During the first meeting, she compares herself to a replica of the Venus of Willendorf produced by Margie, the coven leader: "It had itty bitty arms folded over enormous round breasts. Beneath that was a wide, round abdomen, so the torso looked like two big grapes stuck onto a small plum." Myrtle's road to self-acceptance and her falling out with the lesbian-leaning Margie is at the heart of this story. Author Rebecca O'Connell deftly alternates chapters detailing scenes from the coven and snippets of goddess history with chapters from Myrtle's mundane life as a college freshman, including conflicts with her willowy, "llama-like" roommate Jada, who personifies beauty in the eyes of modern society.

Like many adolescents, Myrtle learns that having a sense of humor can ease the pain of rejection. This carries her through her loneliness and makes for fun reading. She is a bright, likable character. When faced with scenes of Myrtle's self-mutilation and embarrassments (breaking things, unexpectedly seeing Jada's boyfriend emerge from a shower, overhearing insults), the reader keenly empathizes. Though humor helps ease the pain, donuts are even better. After being called a "nympho-psycho-lesbo" by Jada's friends, Myrtle goes on a despondent eating jag. Yet she has a glimpse of what will lead her to her core:

"Psycho. Maybe they meant psychic. I sort of thought I might be telekinetic. I mean, I broke that jar of tea without even going near it. And last night, when I came home, the back door blew wide open before I even reached it, which was lucky, since my arms were full of packages. Margie said it. Goddess-energy can influence the physical sphere. Well, that was nice for the Goddess, but right now I didn't even have the energy to influence my physical rear. It wanted to stay in the bed, and I wasn't in the mood to argue with it."
Myrtle's response to viewing her overflowing "Lake Tummy Flesh" is to gnaw off her toenails. In a scene following her eating binge, Myrtle secludes herself in the bathroom and finds delight in slathering her body with Jada's expensive soaps and shampoos. For the first time, we see her enjoy the roundness of her body. This joy is repeated when she finds her true artistic voice and self-assurance at the book's end.

The author did a wonderful job in making Myrtle thoroughly believable, and the other main characters also were well drawn. However, her characterization of Sam, the Dr. Seuss-obsessed proprietor of Horton's-Myrtle's favorite hang out--stood out as a tad contrived. What grown man actually would say, "Holy Who-ville"? But this kooky character believes in Myrtle's talent and provides a heartwarming foil to her unhappiness with Jada and her popular friends.

I asked Ms. O'Connell if she felt a need for a story about female body images from her work as a children's librarian. She said not specifically but added, "I had a friend in high school who was hospitalized with anorexia, and I've always been somewhat heavier than the weight charts say I should be. So the female body image has always been much on my mind. Over the years I've met a lot of people-male and female-who considered themselves 'alternative'-free from bourgeois notions of beauty. They would dress in their own unique style, listen to esoteric music, and cook experimental recipes. Yet when defining what they thought of as female beauty, they were utterly conventional. They brought so much creativity to their views of everything else under the sun; I wished some of that creativity would be used to reshape their view of female beauty. I tried to present another idea of what a beautiful woman might be like."

Myrtle of Willendorf is Ms. O'Connell's first novel. On the technical side, she said that Stephen Roxburgh, her editor, helped her revise the manuscript by not telling her what to write. Instead, "He gave me an objective and carefully considered view of how the novel read, and what I was saying in it. He kept at it until what I was saying matched what I was trying to say. Revising Myrtle of Willendorf was much harder than writing it, but it taught me a great deal about how to produce a decent novel."

Note: You can read the first chapter of this book on the publisher's website, by clicking on Writers and then, Rebecca O'Connell.

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