I might be breaking my own rules here by reviewing Fruit: A Novel about a Boy and His Nipples by Brian Francis. After all, the title makes it pretty clear this novel is about a boy (as amazing as that title is). But I don’t think either this boy’s orientation or his gender identity are clear-cut. I’ll get into that a bit later. First of all, let me say that this novel really stole my heart, right from the first paragraph:
My name is Peter Paddington. I just started grade 8 at Clarkedale Elementary School. Six days a week, I deliver the Sarnia Observer and the other day my nipples popped out.
Doesn’t this just sound like a teenager? I love how he says grade 8 instead of 8th grade (a key Canada/US linguistic difference). I love how Peter’s voice is cute and innocent, while being sarcastic and droll at the same time. Also, has there ever been a novel set in Sarnia, Ontario? I imagine this book would be pretty fun to read if you grew up there in the 80s (when Francis’s book is set) and recognized the places Peter talks about. Despite what you might imagine, Fruit is not a typical coming of gayge novel, which is something that I really appreciated about it, although this might frustrate some readers. I actually really liked how Francis ultimately left Peter’s gender and sexual identities open. He is, after all, only thirteen.
So, on the one hand, he seems like a classic feminine gay boy. On the other hand, some of his fantasies are pretty telling. For example, he posits himself as a woman while having sexual fantasies about his (older, married) neighbour. It’s pretty significant that he imagines himself as a woman in this particular situation—something that would totally make sense for someone who later identifies as a trans woman. Or, is it just that Peter has no way of conceptualizing being sexually attracted to men other than as a woman? These are fascinating questions.
The novel actually spends more time dealing with Peter’s weight: he weighs 200 pounds and is constantly mulling over plans to get skinny one of these days and how can he stop his nipples from sticking out under his t-shirt (by covering them with Scotch tape) and how can he keep wearing baggy sweatshirts even in the summer. I think it’s a really brilliant and painful interrogation of fatphobia, as well as that peculiar teenage paranoia and self-loathing. I remember so vividly that intense obsessive feeling that everybody else is staring at and talking about whatever you know your disgusting physical imperfections are.
Peter is not the only fascinating person to love in Fruit, whose supporting characters are eccentric and authentic. Peter’s mother, for example, is a terrified driver who refuses to go anywhere where she would have to make a left-hand turn. She loves Peter, and expresses this love by insisting he eat fast food and that he is just fine the way he is. Peter’s Italian Catholic friend Daniela explains that her church is always open, like 7-11. One of his sisters is newly skinny, on her high horse, about her weight loss and her super duper important job at People’s Jewellers in the mall, where family members are not allowed to visit (People’s policy, she insists).
Fruit is a little gem of a novel. Check it out! Oh yeah, and Peter’s nipples talk to him, by the way.