Timothy Dow Adams
In light of the number and variety of his previous publications, it is surprising how amateurish the beginning of Rooke's first novel [Fat Woman] is. Many of the minor characters have names as stereotypical as their situations, despite topical references that suggest the book is set in the contemporary South. The fat woman of the title is Ella Mae Hopkins….
At first this love story between an enormously overweight woman and her skinny husband, Edward, is told in a manner that echoes the worst of Southern fiction: slapstick humor …, [cornpone humor, stereotyped poverty, country fried religion], and a stock Big-Daddy whose unbelievable cruelty to Ella Mae as a child results in her poor self-image and obesity as an adult….
In addition to these cliches, the first part of Fat Woman is slowed by a third-person point of view that tells us repeatedly what Ella Mae watches, thinks, feels, and does; filtered through this focus of narration, the story lacks the insight or interest to make us see the complexities that lie within the title character. For inside this fat person is a real character waiting to be fleshed out. And as the point of view begins to enter Ella Mae's mind directly, the real strength of the novel emerges: the depiction of the paradoxical agony of obesity which often combines a compulsive body-awareness and a resulting self-disgust with alternating denial of both fatness and responsibility for it. Rooke is at his best when portraying Ella Mae's justification for her weight….
In contrast to her spoken utterances, Ella Mae's thoughts about her weight are presented in a language that is strong and lyrical, as authentic and individual as the best of Southern folk speech can be….
The compassion and tender love of this contemporary Southern thin man and fat woman is genuinely humorous, compelling and well-crafted, once the novel shucks off its stock Southernisms and enters the rich mind of its title character. However, like its heroine, Fat Woman would have been easier to love if it were reduced by a third and tightened overall.
Timothy Dow Adams, "'Fat Woman'," in The American Book Review (© 1982 by The American Book Review), Vol. 4, No. 3, March-April, 1982, p. 8.