Myrtle of Willendorf

Overview

Before God was a pale, thin man, people worshiped a robust, bountiful woman. This is the Venus of Willendorf." So says Myrtle's friend Margie at the beginning of this novel for young adult girls. Margie advocates self-affirmation and believes that "bountiful" women are to be celebrated, that each woman is to embrace the goddess within her. But Myrtle rejects Margie's friendship after an embarrassing moment and regards Margie as a "kook." Throughout the book, Myrtle struggles with prescribed notions of beauty. An ...
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Overview

Before God was a pale, thin man, people worshiped a robust, bountiful woman. This is the Venus of Willendorf." So says Myrtle's friend Margie at the beginning of this novel for young adult girls. Margie advocates self-affirmation and believes that "bountiful" women are to be celebrated, that each woman is to embrace the goddess within her. But Myrtle rejects Margie's friendship after an embarrassing moment and regards Margie as a "kook." Throughout the book, Myrtle struggles with prescribed notions of beauty. An obese girl fighting a compulsive eating disorder, she is self-destructive and shunned by her peers. In college, her roommate, Jada, tries to draw her into a world of cosmetics and thinness, but Myrtle senses that Jada's way is not her own. She sets about discovering her own path through artistic expression and is eventually drawn back to the beginning of the story and to Margie as she gains insight about her own beauty. In the end, she is a successful artist on the brink of self-discovery.

A bright and artistic young woman with a fondness for junk food experiences a kooky modern-day coming of age by way of the Goddess within.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Often witty and even more often provocative, this first novel is arresting despite its flaws. About to enter her sophomore year of college, narrator Myrtle is seriously overweight. As she tries to achieve some form of self-acceptance, she ruminates on her estrangement from her high school friend, Margie, a would-be coven leader who advocates Goddess worship. "Before God was a pale, thin man," Margie says, holding up a copy of the Venus of Willendorf, "people worshipped a robust, bountiful woman." At the other extreme is Myrtle's current roommate, Jada, who needs two hours to groom herself every morning and tries to "recruit [Myrtle] into her cosmetic cult." Jada is rarely without her handsome boyfriend, and Myrtle twice has the misfortune of walking in on their sexual encounters, including an elaborately and hilariously referenced oral sex act. An aspiring painter, Myrtle enters a racy drawing of Jada's boyfriend at a campus caf then overhears Jada's friends ridiculing her. When one calls her a "lesbo," Myrtle's hurt and anger precipitate a revelation. Myrtle's voice is thoroughly compelling, even when she revels in her most disgusting habits--as in her extended, loving description of biting her fingernails and toenails--and even though the resolution comes too easily. However, for all Myrtle's fleshiness, she is not fully realized. She seems to have no family, and no life off the small stage that O'Connell shows us. But it testifies to O'Connell's talents that she leaves readers wanting more, not less, of her oversize heroine. Ages 12-up. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
In her junior year of high school, Myrtle is invited to join a coven by her enthusiastically pagan friend, Margie. Margie shows the group a carved figure of an obese woman, commenting, "Before God was a pale, thin man, people worshipped a robust, bountiful woman. This is the Venus of Willendorf." Margie encourages Myrtle to "recognize the Goddess within you," but Myrtle, who is very overweight, has trouble accepting herself. When she goes off to college and ends up sharing an apartment with thin, beautiful Jada, she feels especially badly, because Jada keeps trying to get Myrtle to slim down and wear makeup. The constant presence of Jada's sexy boyfriend (and walking in on them having sex) doesn't help Myrtle feel relaxed, either. Food is one comfort, but another is her art. She draws a picture of Jada's boyfriend as a satyr, and enters it in an art show at her favorite coffee shop, run by a kind and wise man that befriends her. Myrtle is devastated when she overhears a nasty crack about herself at the opening, but comes to realize that the opinion of others is not what matters. She paints a portrait of herself as the Venus of Willendorf, celebrating her size rather than being ashamed of it, and gets back in touch with her friend Margie again, finally accepting herself as she is. Narrated with sardonic humor by Myrtle, this rather offbeat novel will speak to any YA who struggles with self-acceptance and society's narrow concept of beauty. Myrtle alternates between describing life now, in college, and incidents back in high school with Margie (we never learn about Myrtle's family). Paganism isn't the focus—Myrtle doesn't take it seriously, but she does finally absorb Margie'sfeminist message: being comfortable with oneself. O'Connell describes many raw emotions here, and readers will be able to appreciate Myrtle's suffering and cheer her climb from self-loathing to proud self-acceptance. KLIATT Codes: S—Recommended for senior high school students. 2000, Front Street, 120p, $15.95. Ages 16 to 18. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
VOYA
Myrtle's Saturday nights during high school were spent in The Den, otherwise known as her friend Margie's basement. It was here that the group met and honored the prehistoric earth mother and bountiful figure of the Venus of Willendorf. There Myrtle gained insight about herself that she actually did not acknowledge until she was in college. Myrtle's less than perfect body caused her confusion and anger throughout high school. She carries her anguish to college and consequently manages to alienate herself from nearly everyone. Her roommate, Jada, with the body of a fashion model, tries to draw Myrtle into a world of cosmetics and thinness, but she rejects this world and goes about finding her own path through her paintings and drawings. It is through her art that Myrtle defines and completes her acceptance of herself. This story portrays an overweight adolescent's anxiety with painful accuracy. Myrtle's quick wit and naturally sarcastic tone get her through many difficult situations, including a disastrous first showing of her paintings at a local coffee shop. The humorous tone helps tell a story about an important and serious subject—one of body image and sexuality. The author's first novel for young adults, this book is a story that will connect with female adolescents who have ever felt out of place or at odds with their peers. VOYA CODES: 3Q 2P J S (Readable without serious defects; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Front Street, 128p, $15.95. Ages 13 to 18. Reviewer: Anne Liebst

SOURCE: VOYA, December 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 5)

Children's Literature
In high school the overweight and lonely Myrtle found comfort in her weird companion Margaret and her coven where the focus was on earth, moon, and menstrual flow. College is just as bad. An art student, Myrtle is rooming with the lithe dancer, Jada, whose healthy eating habits are in direct contrast to Myrtle's calorie-laden comfort food. It is a difficult time of hiding in her room, self-loathing, and bitter memories of Margaret. Encouraged by the coffee shop owner to submit her work in his art show, Myrtle finds her voice and expression in her drawing. When she overhears others refer to her as a nympho-psycho-lesbo she flees to the safety of her room. There, in the mirror, she confronts her true self and literally and figuratively redefines the meaning of beauty and is able to take the first steps toward healing old wounds with Margaret. In a matter of a few painful weeks, Myrtle embarks on a journey of self-discovery finding not only herself but also a key to the past. Teens who feel isolated will identify with Myrtle and those who do not may find that this book is a wake-up call to open their eyes to the so-called "misfits" around them. Crisp, clean writing laced with gentle humor makes this a quick and satisfying read. 2000, Front Street Books, Ages 14 to 18, $15.95. Reviewer: Beverley Fahey
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-Myrtle, a talented, funny, obese young woman, is unhappy with herself but feels powerless to change. Frequently shunned and ridiculed, she resorts to self-destructive behavior as a coping mechanism. She shares an apartment the summer between freshman and sophomore years in college with beautiful and sexually active Jada, who pressures her to try more traditional notions of beauty such as makeovers and dieting, which only make Myrtle feel worse. A postcard from her only high school friend, Margie, a practicing Wiccan, brings back painful memories. Taunts of being a lesbian caused the vulnerable teen to end their friendship, but Margie still tries to keep in touch with her. When Myrtle's erotic painting of Jada's boyfriend earns her the label "nympho-psycho-lesbo" from her roommate's friends, she is spurred to action. These hurtful words inspire her to paint her strongest piece yet, a self-portrait as a blue goddess in the form of the ancient stone figure, Venus of Willendorf. The artwork is purchased to hang in the Department of Women's Studies, and Myrtle takes tentative steps to reestablish her friendship with Margie. This powerful first novel is well written and thought-provoking. Teens will appreciate Myrtle's self-deprecating humor and cheer for her as she begins to realize her true strengths and like herself as she is.-Susan Riley (Farber), Greenburgh Public Library, Elmsford, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Looking back over her high school days, nail-biting, wisecracking Myrtle reflects on the true nature of friendship. Invited by Margie to join a coven composed of several other teenage misfits, Myrtle embarks on a path of self-discovery that pits her individuality against the pressure to conform. Along the way she meets a cast of eccentric oddballs ranging from her college roommate Jada, an annoyingly self-possessed and smugly thin young woman intent on giving Myrtle the perfect makeover; Goat, Jada's to-die-for significant other; and Sam, an artist-cum-restaurateur. O'Connell's dialogue and character development are both sharp as a tack, delivering plenty of laugh-aloud scenes that capture the angst of adolescence from the perspective of an intriguing and wryly introspective young woman. This is a heroine who finds reading The Runaway Bunny as an adult to be a life-changing event. As Myrtle learns to recognize and value the Goddess in herself, she provides proof positive that self-understanding can come from even the strangest combination of circumstances. (Fiction. YA)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781886910522
  • Publisher: Boyds Mills Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/1996
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 128
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.83 (w) x 8.49 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Ben Zvi O'Connell grew up in Indiana, PA. She graduated from the Pennsylvania State University with a degree in psychology. At Penn State she took a non-credit class called Women's Mysteries, which was a little bit like the coven in Myrtle of Willendorf. Rebecca attended the University of Pittsburgh's School of Library Science on a full scholarship. She is a librarian in Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her husband and son.

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