My Mad Fat Diary is Rae Earl’s real life diary, from when she was a teenager in the year 1989. Rae is overweight and has recently left hospital, after a four month stay, because of problems with mental illness. She battles with negative thoughts and has an unhealthy relationship with food. She lives in a council flat in a small town in Lincolnshire, with her single mother (and later her mum’s foreign boyfriend, Karim, who is in England illegally) but attends a posh school (on a scholarship), where she is currently studying for her A Levels. Rae becomes part of a gang of friends, thanks to her ‘friendship’ with the manipulative Bethany. Rae is obsessed with sex, boys and music- things any teenager/ young adult can relate to- and her problems with her body image and bullying will be familiar territory to a lot of readers.
The book has recently made the transition to the small screen, with a fantastic programme on E4. However, there are a lot of differences between the book and the programme- in the TV programme, the action is jumped forward to 1996 and we see a lot more of Rae in hospital, even meeting other patients- but the two have the same overall feel to them; the principal characters are all there (though they may have different names) and, crucially, Rae is the same endearing, love struck teenager we can all identify with. However, fans of the programme may be disappointed with the book, as we only get Rae’s interpretation of events meaning that there is much less character development for the other characters, compared to the TV adaptation.
WARNING: THE NEXT PART OF THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, ONLY READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVE ALREADY READ MY MAD FAT DIARY
The book takes the shape of a diary and, as such, you get raw and honest personal details- we learn a lot about Rae and her problems. Even so, Rae is guarded about opening up and criticises her last posts- she’ll say stuff like: just read that back and it sounds awful! She uses humour to compensate for her problems. For instance, she summarises her nervous breakdown thus: ‘Had diffy illness.’ Then, checking herself, she elaborates and explains that she completely lost the plot and had to stay in a psychiatric ward. She similarly downplays her sadness she feels about her weight, by making a joke out of it; she is fat, fatter than Chloe who is up the duff.
One of the most significant aspects of the diary, and a part of which I could identify with, was Rae’s insecurities with the way she looked; in particular the fact that she was overweight. As an overweight teenager, I remember having the same thoughts Rae does in her diary; thoughts like ‘if I can only lose…’ so much weight, then I’ll be normal. Rae just wants to be normal and to have relationships; this is something we can all relate to. However, Rae’s constant discussion of her weight and her meals does get a bit boring after a while; and some of her snacks, like white bread and prawn cocktail crisps, dipped in milk, sound pretty disgusting! You find yourself thinking: why is she doing this to herself?
Binge eating is a comfort to Rae; an escape from the bullying and embarrassing incidents she experiences outside the family home. In one horrifying incident, she gets stuck in a water slide at the public swimming baths. Obesity was much less prevalent in the 1980s, so Rae would have felt more of an outsider than she would have if she’d grown up nowadays. Her weight made her the target for bullies in the street, so it’s not difficult to see why Rae had such insecurities about her body. They were certainly reinforced by people around her, such as Bethany who says to Rae that she ‘eats like a pig.’ And it didn’t help that her mum was always cooking comfort food and had a larder filled with unhealthy snacks. Rae sees her weight as a barrier to having a boyfriend and having a sex life.
This brings me onto another issue that Rae has to deal with: her obsession with boys. Rae’s interest in sex is a universal issue; something that all teenage readers will enjoy reading about. It is not an overstatement to say that Rae is obsessed with boys and losing her virginity. She attends a girls’ school, and talk is dominated by one topic: boys. The girls are constantly talking about who’s done what with a boy, who’s going out with who, and who’s got a crush on who. Rae is no different; her attention jumps from one boy to the next, over the course of the diary’s events. At first she is keen on Harry; with whom she experiences her first kiss. Afterwards she is obsessed with Luke. Finally, she finds she has a lot in common with Haddock, whom at first she did not get on with at all.
Whilst her relationships with boys change a lot over the course of the book, Rae’s female friendships experience a lot of changes too. In particular, her relationship with Bethany is rather unhealthy. As I have mentioned earlier, Bethany reinforces Rae’s insecurities about her body. Altogether, she is not a supportive friend. It is only toward the end of the book that Rae learns to break free from Bethany’s bullying and see her for what she really is. It does help, though, that Rae has forged new relationships to replace her friendship with Bethany; she gets to know Dobber, Fig’s girlfriend, who gives Rae supportive female friendship. Dobber is someone who Rae can have a laugh with. Another friend, Mort, is the only constant source of female friendship for Rae. She is sweet and kind; she listens to Rae’s troubles and offers helpful advice and criticisms- she is the direct opposite of the self absorbed and selfish Bethany.
Another key relationship in Rae’s life is the one with her mother. Like most teenagers, Rae does not appreciate the sacrifices her (single) mother makes to support her. For instance, Rae claims that her mother’s life is easy, ‘just reading Women’s Realm and shouting at me.’ This ignorance is hilarious- and typical of somebody Rae’s age; the disagreements between parent and child will be all too familiar for most readers. Though Rae can’t see it, it is clear to the reader that her mum obviously just wants the best for her; she never got the opportunity to attend university and wants a better life for her daughter. Rae clearly has the capacity to do well for herself (her diary is entertaining and insightful) but she is too obsessed with boys to concentrate on her A Levels!
Rather than concentrate on her A Levels (she bullshits her way through four sides of A4 in an essay on Milton) Rae would rather listen to Radio 1 or hang out at the pub- who wouldn’t? Rae identifies with the music she listens to; regularly claiming that a song sums up her life, she could have written it herself. When she hears The Stone Roses for the first time, it’s a life-changing event. Rae expresses herself through music, writing bits of poetry/ lyrics which are scattered throughout her diary. Most of them are terrible, but Rae knows this.
A final issue to discuss is the rather abrupt ending of the diary. Of course, these are real life events, so there is no way events could have been changed simply to give it a better ending. And, chronologically speaking, it ends perfectly: on the last day in 1989, when Rae is celebrating New Year’s Eve with her friends. However, there is no real conclusion and some kind of epilogue, giving information on what Rae went on to do afterwards, would have been nice (all we know is that she published her diaries!). Rae seems to decide that she wants to lose weight, so she can be happy and be with Haddock- but losing weight is something she has been thinking of throughout the book, and she’s never given it a serious attempt. Why should we believe this time will be any different? In a way, I am glad that there was no corny love scene between Haddock and Rae to end the diary. Although this is of course what Rae wanted the most, and although it sounds incredibly cheesy; for Rae to be with someone, she has to first learn to love herself. And it would seem that she is taking steps to becoming happier and healthier. Of course, the TV series of MMFD has been re-commissioned for a second series. It will nice to see what TV producers decide is next for Rae; this is something that the book failed to deliver on.
In some ways, my critique is that I simply wanted more; I wanted to know what happens next for Rae. That is a compliment and a testament to how much I enjoyed reading Rae’s diary. What pervaded her book was Rae’s desire to be normal. Given its title, My Mad Fat Diary, you might be forgiven for expecting a rather different read- one filled with schizophrenic episodes and psychotic thoughts. But in reality, Rae’s life is an almost stereotypical teenage existence; dominated by that everyday anxiety of wanting to fit in. Every teenager wants to be normal. It’s normal to worry about your body, about what other people think about you, and to row with your parent(s). Rae was great company, easy to relate to and I loved reading about her life.
I give this book 9/10 and recommend it to teenagers and young adults.
- It’s good to know that Gail Platt, from Coronation Street, (or Tilsley, as she was in 1989, and as Rae refers to her in the diary) was just as annoying all those years ago as she is now! Some things never change.
- It’s also good to know that other people secretly love ABBA…