When I was in the middle of Frank Bruni’s Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, I quipped on Twitter that I thought the only eating disorder I was interested in reading about was vegetarianism. But the fact is, this book, by The New York Times reporter who was for 5 years the paper’s restaurant critic, is not about his eating disorder (I don’t know if it’s right even to call it that). Even better, it’s not about his struggle with his weight and the morbid insecurity he felt about it, though that’s how the book is billed.
Born Round is about a complex life, boy-to-man, son, brother, boyfriend, and reporter, and in that I found it fascinating and thoroughly entertaining. While the issues about eating and weight loss, are dominant in the book, and almost have to be, given the irony of his landing the restaurant critic job, their more important function is as a framework to hang the rest of his story on. It is not an unusual story—middle-class boy with all the advantages, who’s conscientious and works hard, succeeds. Indeed, it would be a bore if Bruni weren’t such a thoughtful writer and engaging story-teller.
He describes his childhood, his family, growing up in White Plains, summers in Connecticut; working on the student newspaper in college, his route from general reporter and movie critic in Detroit to covering George W. Bush (about whom he wrote a book; and had the author photo heavily worked over to make him look less fat), to Rome Bureau chief, through the experience of reviewing restaurants for The Times as a 5’11″ man who once ballooned up to 270 some pounds.
Sure, the struggle with weight, how he’d binge and purge, how he’d rationalize his behavior, and how he got and stayed thin, is just as interesting as all the other stuff. As a writer, I was most interested in his course as a writer. And I was fascinated by his observations about the way the Italian culture of eating differed from American culture of eating, which comes down to the obvious, but can never be underscored enough, fact that they opt for quality whereas we opt for quantity.
Every now and then I felt that Bruni could veer into the the over-achiever who castigates himself for getting a B+ and not an A. And I wondered how much more intense body image issues are for a gay man than for a straight man. Sometimes I thought, isn’t he just being a little oversensitive here?
But in the end, no. There is one story that ends with a three-word compliment from a sister-in-law about his appearance that is so expertly set up, and delivered, I nearly teared from the triumph that it truly was.
That’s good writing. And that’s why I loved this book.
Oh, and I listened to it (often while exercising!). I’m a memoirs-read-by-the-author junkie, and Bruni’s does a terrific reading, highly recommend this version as well as print. (I got mine free at audible.com, via a promotion they’re doing with This American Life, the best show on radio, period. What I recommend you do is sign up at audible at http://www.audible.com/american, get Bruni’s book—you’ll be hooked on audible.com, but that’s ok—then go to thisamericanlife.org and click the “support” button and give them the cost of the book. We don’t want them going the way of Gourmet. The show is too damn good.)
Oh, and, please, I was kidding with the vegetarian remark!