Stella Newman’s Pear Shaped is the story of the journey of a young woman in her early thirties whose self-confidence is shattered by the immature views on life and a woman’s physique of her much older boyfriend. Sophie Klein is out with a friend for a typical Friday girl’s night. They step into a bar and meet James Stephens, a charismatic, clever, elusive, and funny man with Sophie soon starts dating. While her instinct tells her that James is too good to be true, she sticks to the relationship, eventually succumbing to the effects of James’ underhanded comments hinting at her nonexistent extra weight and the distance he insists on maintaining between them.
Their relationship is quite uncertain and even confusing at times. James’ constant absence because of business trips makes Sophie’s heart grow increasingly fonder, despite the fact that, when he’s not taking her out to dinner, he treats her like a doormat and deliberately criticises Sophie’s weight and looks. After all, he is used to younger girlfriends straight out of fashion magazines, telling Sophie openly that she is not his usual physical type. That this comes from a guy whose midriff features a slight beer gut is, of course, quite ridiculous. Then again, isn’t it but a reflection of the ridiculous comments most women have received from people who have no right to say anything to us about our bodies in the first place?
Pear Shaped explores what an unhealthy relationship can look like, the heartbreak it involves, how powerfully it can negatively alter self-image, and how self-deception that keeps it going for longer than it should. This book contains many elements I would like to be able to weave into my own. It delves into important topics without coming off as patronizing; it takes an honest look at what an unhealthy relationship can do while staying away from painfully overused cliches. It recognizes the characters’ flaws without demonizing them. For example, James is described for both who he is and who he isn’t, be it positive or negative. Newman sticks to telling the story of a strong woman chewed up in an unhealthy relationship and the ensuing, painful recovery.
Newman’s book manages to be both hilarious and heartbreaking. But ultimately, the story of Sophie’s struggle is uplifting. She is complex in a way many can related to: she is both confident and insecure, intelligent but slightly clueless at times, beautiful yet “normally” so (read: not a model). More characters of this kind are needed in contemporary fiction: women whose struggles through crises we can relate to, and whose ultimate victory can inspire us. Pear Shaped is much more than the light-hearted, humorous tale of someone who gains weight and has to beat a love of dessert to get it off (which is what I thought it would be about after reading the synopsis). Sophie starts out as a self-confident woman happy with her life and looks and ends up riddled with doubt through the continuous direct and indirect barbs James throws at her: he never says that she looks good, instead complimenting the clothing; he never thanks her for making him feel comfortable, choosing instead to call her his “sofa”; he only says that he loves “her company,” deliberately staying away from a firmer commitment. Despite the warning bells, Sophie lets it all go, telling herself she is too sensitive or reads too much into things. Again, how many times have women been told to do the same?
That the story is well written and flows well adds to the quality of this book, as does the author’s wittiness. I also appreciated the glimpses into the food industry which slid by as easy as custard. As opposed to another book I recently read, the descriptions flow in naturally and the scenes set at Sophie’s work add to the development of the main story. I personally didn’t like either the innuendos and sex scenes nor the swearing that did make it in Pear Shaped. But Sophie and James’ story does allow for a couple of other interesting concepts to be touched upon: the perspective of an ultra-rich person versus that of a comfortable middle class person regarding material well-being; how subtle signs of a bad relationship can easily be ignored in light of the attractiveness of its positive aspects, however superficial they might be; the importance of friends in getting out of a bad relationship and after a devastating breakup; the importance of being comfortable in one’s skin, requiring that one be healthy without being obsessive. In light of all these concepts interweaving throughout the book, a reading guide and/or a discussion guide would on doubt prove quite handy.
In a tradition I associate with Anna Maxted – albeit less intense – Pear Shaped explores the importance of perception and the importance of knowing one’s true self in the full glory of its strengths and weaknesses. Through Sophie’s journey readers can be inspired to go beyond some of the negative things that come the way of women these days and learn to focus on who they are instead of who they are told they should be. More information about Stella Newman is available on her website.