Book Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges

whats-eating-gilbert-grape.jpegMy daughter and I hosted the meeting for her high-school mother daughter book club a few days ago. We only host once a year, and it’s always in January. We switched to a lighter schedule when all the girls entered high school and more activities started claiming their time. So we try to make the most of the one meeting at our house each year.

We opted for a book/movie combination of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges. It was a great choice. It was interesting to compare and contrast the two, since both the book and the screenplay were written by Hedges. Here are some of the points that came up during our discussion.

1. The movie is a lot more sympathetic to the characters than the book. The characters in the book are gritty and flawed and repulsive and totally engaging as well as entirely believable. Most of the characters in the movie are nicer, and the plot line is nicer to them. Particularly to mama and Ellen, the teenaged sister. The exception is Mrs. Carver, who seems more neglectful of her children in the movie than in the book.

2. The extra characters in the book help to round out the story. We missed the presence of Gilbert’s two older siblings, Melanie, the receptionist in Mr. Carver’s insurance office, and the never-seen-but-talked-about deceased second-grade teacher.

3. Becky seemed older in the movie, which both girls and moms saw as a plus. In the book she’s 16, and the girls especially thought it was “gross” that she wanted to be with a 24-year-old man. (What a relief!)

4. Both the book and the movie were wonderful for very different reasons. Some of us preferred the movie to the book, and some of us were just the opposite. But most of us liked them both.

The biggest problem I had was deciding what to serve, as the book’s descriptions of mama’s eating habits were not very appetizing. In the end I decided it didn’t really matter what I served. There is so much talk in the book about food, that I figured anything I picked would work. So I opted for spaghetti with meat sauce, bread with butter and green salad. Madeleine made chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is charming to read and to watch, and I highly recommend it for high-school-aged readers and their moms.

Here’s my official review of the book:

The characters in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges are gritty and flawed and repulsive and totally engaging as well as entirely believable. It’s a great study of a young man seeking meaning for his life and trying to decide when he can put his own needs before the needs of a very dysfunctional family.

Gilbert’s day-to-day life in small-town Iowa is mind-numbingly realistic, and you can understand both his frustrations at the life he’s living and the limitations that keep him living it. Gilbert feels trapped by a family that needs him, and there is so much truth that goes unspoken between him and his mother and  his sisters it’s almost painful to read. Over and over Gilbert has to decide between doing what he wants to do and doing what his family needs him to do.

Since Gilbert’s father hanged himself in the family’s basement, his mother has not left the house and has become morbidly obese. His teen-aged brother is mentally disabled, and it falls to Gilbert to help him with most of his personal care. Tension is always present, but as long as Gilbert doesn’t think too much about his situation or analyze his prospects for the future, life can go on as before.

When a girl who is very different from anyone else Gilbert knows arrives on the scene, he begins to question everything in his life, with consequences both heart wrenching and hopeful. This is a great book to read in a mother-daughter book club of girls in 11th grade up or an adult book club and then to watch the movie. Comparing and contrasting the two is very interesting, particularly since author Peter Hedges also wrote the screenplay.

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