“Diary of a Mad Fat Girl,” by Stephanie McAfee

Reviewed by Patricia O’Sullivan

High school art teacher Graciela ‘Ace’ Jones thinks she has a big derriere, but in her hometown of Bugtussle, Mississippi, Ace is better known for her big mouth. In fact, Ace’s rants are famous in Bugtussle – like the time she stood up to a pack of mean girls bullying her friend, Lilly, back when they were kids, and the time she told off her lifelong sweetheart, Mason McKenzie, who had just proposed to her. But now her mouth is leading Ace to new troubles with Lilly and her boss, Catherine Hillard, a.k.a. Cruella de Vil.

Ace is officially not speaking to Lilly after Lilly cancelled their annual spring break trip to Florida at the last minute. But she can’t resist yelling, “You have got to be out of your damn mind” first. Back at school on Monday, Ace learns that Principal Hillard has fired Lilly, the school’s only French teacher, for inappropriate conduct with a student.  That night, Ace learns that her friend Chloe is in the hospital after being beaten up by her husband. While visiting Chloe in ICU, Ace goes on a rant against Chloe’s husband and gets arrested. On Tuesday, Principal Hillard reprimands Ace, telling her, “It would be in your best interest to start keeping your mouth shut and minding your own business.”

Ace is so mad at Principal Hillard she rants about it to an audience in a bar. The next day, Ace gets into it with Principal Hillard, who promises to fire her. On Friday, Chloe asks Ace and Lilly to help her get the goods on her cheating husband. Now Ace has to actually talk to Lilly in order to help Chloe. Ace almost manages to keep her cool, but then Mason McKenzie shows up in Bugtussle and Ace feels as if she is going to lose her mind. Thank goodness for pizza home delivery, cold bear, and her chiweenie, Buster Loo.

Diary of a Mad Fat Girl is a rollicking, funny story about life in small-town Mississippi, with more scandal and intrigue than a soap opera.  Ace’s unwillingness to mind her own business and inability to keep her mouth shut gets her into all kinds of trouble even as it wins her friends who appreciate her loyalty, her passion, and her honesty.  This is not a ‘big ideas’ book or even one with a realistic plot. But it is fun to read a book in which the heroine says out loud all the things you wish you could say to the bad guys. Ace is neither tactful nor diplomatic. If she was a real person you had to deal with every day, you might not even like her. But Ace and her eclectic assortment of friends are a lot of fun to hang out with.

Mississippi native and Ole Miss alumna, Stephanie McAfee is one of self-publishing’s success stories.  Just over a year ago she published Diary of a Mad Fat Girl in Smashwords and Pubit! by Barnes & Noble.  A few months later it was a New York Times bestseller. Before being picked up by NAL Trade, an imprint of Penguin, McAfee’s e-book sold almost 150,000 copies.  McAfee’s fans (and she has a lot of them) love the story’s Southern sass, one of them writing, “If you don’t understand the healing quality of frozen peas, well, just stick with books written by scholars.”

What McAfee has captured in Diary of a Mad Fat Girl is a side of Southerners you won’t find in the stereotypes she mocks in her hilarious book trailer – men who are kind, easy-going, and protective of their female friends, and women who are brash, tough, and capable. In her memoir, Homesick, Sela Ward wrote about how the intelligence and organizational savvy of Southern women are often underestimated.  In the film The Blind Side, we saw some of this intelligence and toughness in Sandra Bullock’s character. And in The Help, we saw how Tilly moved Jackson, Mississippi, with the force of her will while Skeeter moved the city with the force of her pen.

What McAfee offers us is yet another variation of Southern women, one who moves Bugtussle with the force of her personality. Ace is willing to make a public spectacle of herself when justice calls for it, and she does not, in the words of Sela Ward, “make men feel like they are the center of the universe.”  On the contrary, Ace is often compelled to put men in their place. However, Ace Jones is a Southern woman through and through, and even though she won’t win any beauty pageants or personality contests, she understands the healing qualities of frozen peas.

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