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Ruth Simon is beautiful, smart, talented, and always hungry. As a teenager, she starved herself almost to death, and though outwardly healed, inwardly she remains dangerously obsessed with food. For Joseph Zimmerman, Ruth's tormented relationship with eating is a source of deep distress and erotic fascination. Driven by his love for Ruth, and haunted by his own secrets, Joseph sets out to unravel the mystery of hunger and denial. This gripping debut novel is a powerful ...
Ruth Simon is beautiful, smart, talented, and always hungry. As a teenager, she starved herself almost to death, and though outwardly healed, inwardly she remains dangerously obsessed with food. For Joseph Zimmerman, Ruth's tormented relationship with eating is a source of deep distress and erotic fascination. Driven by his love for Ruth, and haunted by his own secrets, Joseph sets out to unravel the mystery of hunger and denial. This gripping debut novel is a powerful exploration of appetite, love, and desire.
This poignant story of a vulnerable young woman, her lover, and the devastating disease that both unites and threatens to destroy them offers a raw and sentimental journey into the dark world of hunger and denial. Eve's Apple is an unforgettable first novel, an intricate meditation on the nature of hunger--for food, for knowledge, and for love. 384 pp. National ads & publicity. 15,000 print.
With a self-absorbed heroine, and a hero only slightly more sympathetic to the reader, the love story here, intended to explicate the psycho-medical theme, never catches fire. The real heart of the novel is essentially a long and often intellectually provocative essay on the varieties of hunger—for love, fame, acceptance, and the manner in which young women, especially, respond to them. Joseph and Ruth first meet in college; after graduating, they move into an apartment in New York. Joseph teaches English to Russian immigrants; Ruth, whose father pays her rent and Visa bills, wants to be an artist. She's also obsessed with her weight and has been hospitalized for anorexia. As the story opens, Joseph is beginning to suspect that Ruth is suffering a recurrence: She exercises compulsively, eats very little, and behaves erratically in restaurants. Ernest Flek, a psychologist and a friend of Ruth's divorced mother, gives the concerned Joseph a list of books to read. The list is not only eclectic—ranging from basic texts on anorexia to Kenneth Clark's study The Nude—but suggests the wider implications of eating disorders. As Joseph becomes more and more involved—he spends all of his free time researching the subject—Flek suggests that he must learn to deal with his own hungers and demons before he can help Ruth. Joseph resists, until Ruth leaves for France. As he struggles with his fears, migraines, and guilt, he eventually comes to understand that he was not responsible for his teenage sister's suicide, and that his obsessive need to monitor Ruth's illness has more to do with his own needs than hers. Ruth returns ill, but the two are ready to fight their problems together.
More research than romance, which is disappointing, because Rosen can write. It's the ideas, though, not the characters, that have life here.
Jonathan Rosen: Thank you, first of all, for liking my book. Writing about a sick woman -- and making her believable -- was a challenge. I suppose I became interested in the subject of women's eating disorders in college, where I knew a great many women who seemed to have so much going for them and yet who suffered terribly over food. From the human perspective, it was painful and moving and mystifying. Novelistically, it was a great challenge because the male narrator in my book, in trying to understand his ailing girlfriend, tries to unravel the mystery not merely of her sickness but of her otherness, perhaps her femaleness -- an impossible job, of course. And I didn't want to reduce the woman to a mere object of study.
Jonathan Rosen: I'm so glad you were attuned to Joseph's hunger as well as Ruth's -- that was an important element of the book for me. I think, in addition to the hunger for food and the hunger for knowledge, was the hunger for love. That is the hunger that in a sense binds these two characters together. I was also interested in juxtaposing the appetites of the immigrant students Joseph teaches -- basic hungers for food and work and apartments -- and the more complicated appetites of people like Ruth and Joseph, whose families have "made it" but who are hungry for the things people often give up when they make it in America -- embracing families, attachment to tradition, to a sense of community and home.
Jonathan Rosen: I'm glad you like Joseph. I like him too. When I was younger, I shared a certain sense of living in limbo that I think he has, when you're an adult on paper but still not quite settled in the world. I think I also know what it means to pour your energy into loving someone and to want to save someone from the sorrow of the world. But I feel I'm different from Joseph in many ways -- and I think I feel that although he certainly loves Ruth, he needs her illness, needs to care for her. I think he needs to be educated in human relationships -- though I hope in the course of the novel he does learn a thing or two.
Jonathan Rosen: I did a great deal of reading for the novel -- the trick, of course, was to integrate it into the book without burdening the novel with research. Like my narrator, Joseph, I went to the library -- not quite as obsessively as he did (though writing a book can be quite obsessive) but a fair amount. I read everything I could find about the troubled relationship of people and food -- from Greek myths to lives of self-starving medieval saints who wanted to be closer to God to stories about Victorian women who became newspaper celebrities because of their ability to fast. I also read contemporary scientific studies and heartbreaking interviews with anorexics. But I was partly writing about the failure of research as well as what you learn from it, so I wasn't too afraid of leaving something out. I knew I would.
Jonathan Rosen: I think that what the doctor means is that what our society values are often things that make us sick. The notion that to be thin is to be attractive is of course the most obvious and the most relevant for the book. As a society we value money and there is nothing wrong with money, but someone who works all the time and ignores his family and friends, his inner life so that he can work, may appear an outwardly prosperous man but he is inwardly ailing. Women struggling with food often appear to have everything: They please others, they are beautiful and smart, and yet they are inwardly ailing. It's too simple to blame society, but certainly our culture prizes things that do make people sick.
Jonathan Rosen: The quote from Milton is from the first line of PARADISE LOST. Milton is saying that the whole story he has to tell -- essentially the story of why we are the way we are -- is because of "the fruit of that forbidden tree." I don't accept the notion of original sin, but I think we tell ourselves that story because there is something primal in our hunger for knowledge and in our sense of ourselves as being sinful beings, burdened by the flesh. I wanted an echo of that earlier story in my reader's ear. The Kafka quote is from a story I love called "A Hunger Artist." In it, a man fasts and fasts and fasts and is displayed in a circus. But when he tells the circus overseer that he always wanted to be admired for fasting and the man says, "We do admire your fasting," the hunger artist says, "But you shouldn't admire it..." That little exchange fits my novel well -- Ruth wants to be admired for her fasting but in the end wants to be saved from it. In my mind, Jewish Kafka answers Protestant Milton. Kafka says: It's bad to afflict the flesh, to reject the body. For me the two quotes work together. They both reflect moods I know.
Jonathan Rosen: I think, as you correctly observe, Joseph's own buried, sad, secret history leads him towards Ruth, even if he doesn't understand it at the time. But I think there's something fascinating -- as well as repellent -- about illness. And something instructive. Freud, after all, derived his theories about well people by studying sick people -- it was the obsessives, the hysterics, the psychotics that taught him what he considered to be the fundamentals of human behavior. But I also think we live in a culture that outwardly professes a deep devotion to health and fitness but that is secretly obsessed with the sick, the troubled, the tortured, the abused. I wonder if this isn't a leftover sense people have of the secretly sinful nature of being human. Whatever the reason, it's in the air and Joseph's absorbed it.
Jonathan Rosen: I absolutely think fiction lets you say different things, and I can't imagine the nonfiction version of this story. One thing you feel when you're a journalist is the need for facts and information. Joseph feels that hunger for knowledge too -- he goes to the library to read about eating disorders because his girlfriend has one and gets so carried away he actually looks her name up on the library computer. But the education of the human heart is impossible to show in an article. And in a novel, one can do several things at once -- I could share the information Joseph learns about women and food even as I'm partly illustrating the failure of mere information. And I could express the part of myself that is like Joseph -- the part that wishes to heal and help and nourish, even as I indulged some other darker side that could imagine Ruth, eating each tiny crumb with scrupulous care, wishing to throw off the burden of the body and be free.
Jonathan Rosen: I suppose I'd say it's a novel about a man who loves a woman who is sick and who tries to heal her, embarking on a kind of journey to unravel the mystery of her illness -- only to discover in the process that he -- like all of us -- has his own demons. But I should immediately say that summarizing a book is painful, because it's giving in to a sort of anorexic impulse to strip away the body of the book and replace it with some airy essence. It's tempting because novels are so messy, but I hope the book lives in its messiness.
Jonathan Rosen: I'd like to thank you for the chance to do this. The immediacy of being online, which I've never experienced before, is exhilarating. Also, I'd like to thank the participants -- the questions were terrific and I feel people read my book with real depth and openness. Partly because of the online experience, and certainly because of the people out there, I've never felt so connected to readers before (and all while sitting at my desk). Thank you!
Posted January 17, 2000