‘The Art of Starving’ follows Matt, a gay teenage boy who definitely does not have an eating disorder. His sister runs away, but Matt is convinced something bad happened to her. So, he pushes himself to the limits trying to help her. But as Matt stops eating he also gains almost magically heightened senses. Will his hunger kill him or give him power?

Trigger warning for eating disorders and other mental health issues.

I give this book five stars (out of five) hands down. This book was great! I absolutely loved it, especially because of the awareness it can bring to guys having eating disorders (and other similar mental illnesses). As well as having LGBTQ+ main characters, which I love to see in stories, since for a long time homophobia was a widely accepted ‘opinion’ and now it’s a lot more accepted even in mainstream media. This is a dark yet funny story of eating disorders, addiction, friendship and love.

This book is also very emotional, and it definitely made me cry on multiple occasions so be aware of the impending emotions that are sure to hit you in the face if you make the smart decision to read this book. This book will make you want to cry but it will also make you simple and happy at certain points too. I really like that this book had an extremely unique main character and told an incredible story, if you don’t already know about this book then you can read all about it in the following plot summary and afterwards you can hear all of my thoughts and opinions on it.

I definitely have to say that this book is not for everyone, you have to be the type of person to be interested when you hear “The Art of Starving” and keep reading when the first page isn’t a sad story of a girl who wasn’t skinny enough, because this is not that at all. Before we get into it I also need to give a quick disclaimer that this book also unapologetically covers dark and mature topics as well as featuring quite an impressive range of swearing, so this book is definitely not for younger readers or anyone who isn’t okay with the things described above.

In this review I combined the plot summary with some feedback and comments, this is also very long purely because this is one of my favourite books and I had a lot to say.

The beginning of this book is amazing, as soon as I read the first two pages I could tell this was going to be my type of story. This entire book is somewhat marketed as a guide book for the students of the Art of Starving, so basically people who also want to fight their hunger. Because of this each chapter there’s a Rule that students should follow, all based on what the main character Matt experiences in that section of the story (or sometimes more generally).

The opening page really reminded me of this quote:
“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” ― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Because it starts by congratulating you on acquiring a human body while also calling it a poor decision. Matt explains that life unfortunately has a strict return policy and you can’t get rid of it too easily, but he will be making this Rulebook to help us (the reader).

And besides that first introduction the very first word in the actual story telling part of this book is “Suicidal ideation,” which leads into Matt reading a concerned letter from his psychiatrist that he’d taken from the mail before his mom could see it. It also shows Matt walking to school to avoid bullying on the bus (which her mother doesn’t know about) and learning the very important lesson: Never tell anyone anything important.

The first chapter as a whole is perfect, it does a great job of introducing you to the main character but also the setting, his family and many other characters at his school too. It shows Matt’s hunger and how it makes him feel almost stronger and amplifies his senses. It tells you nonchalantly that Matt is gay while also explaining what happened to Matt’s older sister Maya, which is what’s currently stopping Matt from running away and/or killing himself. Maya beat him to it, by disappearing one night.

She had called the next morning and told Matt and his Mom that she was okay and just staying somewhere else for a week or so, but Matt was convinced that something happened to her and he knows that one of the popular boys met up with her that night. So he suspects that Tariq had something to do with her disappearance, even though Matt and Maya both had crushes on him.

At school the three main popular soccer boys are Ott, Bastien and Tariq, although Tariq can seem like an actual human while the others are just too busy protecting their fragile masculinity to worry about anything else.

Moving forward Matt reiterates that he isn’t starving because he doesn’t have access to food, despite his family’s financial struggles he always has food but he does not want to eat because he believes himself to be fat, ugly and undesirable. But he also states that he does not have an eating disorder, because he’s pretty sure boys can’t even get eating disorders. He thinks he’s the only one who can see himself for who he really is and he fights against food for control.

The second chapter also talks about the bullies Ott, Bastien and Tariq while they bring up Maya’s disappearance to get to him. Ott is the embodiment of physical violence, he’s strong and everything he does is mostly thoughtless. Bastien is the verbal bullying, emotional abuse and hate speech is all his. While Tariq is the silent bystander, who doesn’t say or do anything to get them to stop, he is their audience and he makes it worse.

Matt’s mom works a low paying job at the local pig slaughterhouse, she’s a single mom but she’s always done her best to raise her kids right. This is part of why Matt does not want to tell her he’s gay, he’s sure she knows but he also doesn’t want to confirm her fears of raising her kids wrong. Maya was a strong person, she was a rebel, had boyfriends and played guitar in a punk-rock band. Matt writes her emails every night telling her about his day, asking her where or how she is. Matt is sure that something happened to her but he doesn’t know what or why. At the end of the first day Matt succumbed to his hunger and binge ate Maya’s favourite food.

But when Matt eats he isn’t above making himself puke it up again. In fact, Matt has even used this strategy to get out of gym class starting in freshman year. But when he messes up by eating now he forces himself to deal with it, because he is totally in control and he does not have an eating disorder. The next day at school Matt is faded because he ate, but when Ott and Bastien start to attack him he focuses in on his hunger, he uses it to his advantage and he fights back even if he still takes the punches, he is not a silent victim.

Matt’s father is gone, he’s basically a ghost for all Matt knows. He knows that he is the source of his red-hair, he’s probably not a very good person, he was born a Jew but converted to Buddhism. But Matt does know that hunger makes you stronger, smarter and better, it can give you a power, an ability, it can heighten your senses. Matt has done everything he can to get closer to his idea of his father, and he’s now considering converting to Buddhism.

The next day at school Matt experiences something new, a side effect of his hunger. His sense of smell is extremely heightened, to the point of nearly being a supernatural ability. Using only his sense of smell he can tell that a girl had sexual relations with her best friend’s boyfriend. Matt is overwhelmed by all the strong scents at school but he’s also excited, his hunger gives him this power and he wants to explore that. So, instead of actually going to class Matt skips and goes to the library to research the human nose and sense of smell. Then he starts testing himself and tries identifying people based solely on their scent, he goes into random rooms in the school and lets his scent guide him. Eventually he tests if his ability is because of his hunger by eating something small from a vending machine and nearly immediately his insane sense of scent fades.

Mat choses Tariq as the person he would use to test his smelling abilities, after Maya came forward to Matt and told him he could always talk to her even about guys, they had both been crushing on Tariq. And when it looked like Maya had a chance with him Matt cheered her on, until he knew they met up the night she disappeared. Now he’s doing everything he can to learn more about Tariq and the other’s to figure out what happened to Maya.

The first step of his plan is going to a high school party and Tariq offers to give him a ride which he accepts. Maya’s weapon of choice was silence, whenever they got into fights she just would stop talking for ages and that was her way. And that didn’t change when she left, she emailed sometimes and tried to call but never often and never with more than a few sentences. That night Matt snuck into Maya’s room and used his sense of smell to retrace her last movements, and he found the SIM card from her phone hidden in a book on her shelf (with that he could send texts and calls that would look like they were coming from her).

Next goes his sense of hearing, he hears everything said in the hallways and can tell if it’s true or not. Then researching hearing and experimenting more at school, first putting his ear to the wall and listening to things in the next few rooms and then testing his hearing around the entire school. That night Matt tries even more things to see what he can do, he mediates and controls his breathing then when he’s nearly lost his sense of self he extends his hearing beyond his body. It travels around the town and he hears things from all over from the pigs being killed in the slaughterhouse to what Ott’s father says to him, Matt can hear it all. Matt decides that he is stronger than his body and his hunger lets him hear and smell everything, even feel others pain.

The next day Mat used Maya’s SIM card to text Tariq, since he didn’t actually know what happened he settled on something neutral but also accusatory: “ I’m going to tell.” Tariq responds immediately, begging her not to. Matt doesn’t really know what happened between them or what Tariq is afraid of Maya telling people, but he’s very suspicious and he’s making it his goal to use his hunger to find out what happened to her. At the party Matt is surprised to find it’s not a total hell, and he uses his abilities even more. He can hear and smell everything, and he uses this to his advantage while playing poker and reading Tariq, he finds loneliness and hurt there (something that doesn’t quite add up with his popular guy exterior).

Matt’s mother’s worry and fears become clearer, she makes an effort to get him to eat and is facing potential layoffs at her work. She loves their town and she might’ve left it if she wasn’t in love with the way everything ran in the same small place, and Matt thinks he might’ve loved it too if he had been accepted instead of outcast for being gay.

Over the next few days Matt keeps doing his research and exploring his newfound powers, eating less and less each day. One day during gym class the boys are making fun of Matt and he has had enough. So he uses his amazing hunger powers he gains superhuman abilities and takes out the entire other team during a game of dodgeball, as well as the teacher (he gets suspended but he’s proud).

During the long weekend of his suspension Matt and Tariq end up going to a punk concert together, Matt got him drunk along the way and asked him some questions but in the end they just enjoyed the show and Matt learned more about how to control his amazing sense powers.

The next day Matt is awoken to an intervention from his Mom, telling him to eat and to look at himself in the mirror (all he sees is ugly, like a person with an eating disorder would see). She also has an injury from a mistake at work (at the slaughterhouse) which makes her even more likely to be laid off. Matt ended up eating but only in front of her,

Matt’s sense of touch is the next thing to advance, he’s able to extend his awareness outwards of his body and observe other things all over the town. Matt discovers that knowing so much about the body is a curse as well as a gift. Soon after also Matt develops his vision, by flipping through magazines and then testing himself on the contents. Matt continues to test his sight at school, to the point where he can nearly predict things before they happen just like he could hear, smell and feel things that happened in the past.

[Slight spoiler warning, skip to the ‘My Comments’ section to avoid them]

At night hunger drives Matt out of bed and outside, his senses tell him everything and give him all the answers. Within a few weeks the slaughterhouse will close and hundreds of people will lose their jobs, everyone is stuck in a unbreakable chain of cause and effect. And knowing this, Matt ran through the town and finally felt free, reviled in the fact that no one could stop him from breaking the rules. And when he broke free it started to snow, as he ran it snowed harder. Eventually hunger drove him back home.

Next thing we know Matt and Maya are on a beach and she’s telling him to stop being selfish (we are not entirely sure what is going on at this point). Matt, however, quickly realizes that this is probably a dream. Maya tells him to stop trying to fight someone else’s fight, stop and first fully understand himself. As Maya talks although Matt is pretty sure he’s dreaming he also feels 100% sure that he is really talking to Maya somehow, this is her.

When Matt woke up again he was in a hospital bed and they were giving him fluids and nutrients, a doctor came in and asked him a lot of questions about him, food and his body. But Matt is smart and catches on quickly, his answers don’t give anything away except for maybe the fact that he’s lying. They are doctors, they can tell he’s malnourished and recommend seeing a therapist to help with it (and they are prepared to force him into treatment if he won’t do so voluntarily).

Back at home Matt’s heightened senses are gone, ‘eating’ again has ruined that and if anything his senses are worse than average now. Matt later meets up with Tariq and even in this state Matt can smell Tariq’s secret, it’s right at the surface. Matt is incredibly confused when Tariq suddenly takes his face in his hands and kisses him. Matt is even more shocked when he admits to wanting to kiss him since 8th grade, and they stay together and never want to have to move.

At school the next day Matt felt surprisingly good because he knew he had Tariq and after school they went and got McDonalds together. And Matt ends up finally asking him about Maya now that he knows that his secret isn’t something he did to her. Tariq admits that he gave her a ride and she asked him out but he confessed to loving Matt, which made Maya go silent. He dropped her off, she told him not to tell anyone because she had been going to meet their Dad.

After that Matt made Tariq drive him right home and he desperately tried to feel hunger, to regain his powers and be able to see, hear, smell, feel and know things again. He tries everything, even biting off one of his own finger nails (he always bites them as a bad habit) but it’s not quite enough.

His mom is facing trouble, less and less shifts and if she’s not a full-time worker then they lose their health insurance. So Matt does what his mother does when he’s in need, he cooks, he makes her cookies with love and doesn’t allow himself anything.

And for a while Matt gets to be one of the guys with Tariq’s friends from school. But he still equates eating with how aware he is and how much he’s able to use his powers. Matt and Tariq get close and we learn more about his relationship with his father, Tariq is a communist and he believes in equality while his father is a rich man who believes in the capitalist system of pay the rich and taxing the poor.

Matt and Tariq go out on their first real date and it honestly doesn’t go too well because it ends in Matt crying for many reasons, one of them being that when he eats after Tariq told him to, it tasted so good and his body wants him to eat even when he doesn’t. Later Matt goes to a with Tariq, and here the hate escalates again into cruelty but Matt stops Bastien by using his powers {I will fully explain this outside of the summary}. After the party Matt and his Mom have a very important conversation, she finally tells him she’s an alcoholic (even though he already knew from his powers) and she tells him more about his father and how she’s worried she messed up as a parent.

For Christmas since Matt is Jewish and Tariq is Mulsim they went out for chinese food with Tariq’s family but because of meeting his parents Matt hadn’t been focused on how to fake eating. He ended up eating his entire meal and then puking it up again in the parking lot outside, this is when it all clicks into place even for Matt, this is the first time Matt admits even to himself that he has an eating disorder. And the world keeps spinning. Matt and Tariq get closer still, even now that he knows about Matt’s disorder. Until they stop working out and everything good fades away (his Mom loses her job and her alcoholism is back at full force).

[Major spoiler warning, to avoid skip the ‘My Comments’ section]

Matt is still starving himself and when he goes down to the slaughterhouse at night it is abandoned. He raises his arms and the drops open, Matt is powerful and he can do anything. He wakes up the pigs and opens their gates, and he marches his own army of pigs into town. Matt has full control over them and he sends hundreds of pigs to Ott’s house and to the school and tells them to destroy, they ruin everything and Matt is happy. He breaks off groups of pigs to go to different places so no one misses out.. And as he pushes himself beyond his limits, to the point where his body is screaming for help, he hears Maya’s voice and realizes he’s not the only one with powers.

When Matt wakes up he’s back in the hospital again, in critical condition because starving yourself is bad for you, it can and will permanently damage your body. But this takes Matt down the long road to recovery and I won’t cover everything that happens next but just know the ending is good even if it isn’t a fairytale happy ending.

Their town was overrun by pigs, but everyone says they just broke free from the slaughterhouse and there’s no mention of Matt’s name. He isn’t sure what really happened and what didn’t but his powers faded when his hunger did and that was as big a loss as the damage to his heart. Matt is working on his disorder, Maya is finishing high school and their Mom is working to overcome her addiction and got a new job. Tariq is going off to college while Matt still has senior year, for that and many other reasons they break up. But they ended their relationship on good terms and are still friends, and although it did hurt Matt it didn’t destroy him.

The last chapter starts the same way the first chapter does with the words “Suicidal ideation,” but now Matt is not suicidal at least not actively. And here for one more time Matt uses his powers even though he isn’t hungry and actually just ate, he is still him and he is still strong and he nearly starved himself to death but he still has his entire life ahead of him. And life went on.

My Comments:

In this book generally the chapters are pretty short, I think this is because it makes sense to align new rules with new things happening in the story and that means splitting it up a bit more and it also really works with the writing style. At the start of each chapter there’s also a note saying what day it is and approximately how many calories Matt has consumed that day, this is a great way to show how time sort of jumps around and that Matt counts his calories everyday and tries to keep them low.

I just really want to praise the cover art and title of this book, both because I think they’re extremely interesting and eye catching but also because I think they are good representations of the story. The cover art shows a heart made of rib bones and I think that’s pretty telling about the story and actually one of the reasons I decided to pick up this book. Because the story is about Matt’s eating disorder but it also tells the story of his relationship with Tariq, which is a love story and it could also be argued that it shows Matt gradually learning to love himself as well.

So, I think the heart was extremely well placed and the bones just symbolize Matt’s disorder. The title is also very interesting and the main reason I even found this at the library, ‘The Art of Starving’ makes it sound amazing and incredible and like something everyone would want to do, it’s almost contradictory. However, when you read the book you get to read Matt’s rules and advice based on his personal experiences and his powers. We see that to him it really is an art and the things he can do when he’s starving are his artwork.

I just need to say that it’s really interesting to read this because it’s 100% from Matt’s point of view, so when he believes that Tariq did something to Maya that’s what the readers are led to believe as well. And I love his perspective, because it makes it a lot easier to be able to get to know Matt’s character and we get funny commentary as well. And when Matt starts developing his powers you can clearly see his confusion when he finds hurt and loneliness instead of sinister intent, but when you learn the entire story everything makes complete sense.

My favourite part of this entire wonderful book is Matt’s powers and he uses them. It’s very interesting to see him gradually develop incredible abilities as he starves himself, I find it extremely unique that his powers are sensory based and they developed one by one. His sense of smell, hearing, sight, etc all developed in widely different ways but there’s also similarities. He has limits but as his powers get stranger he is also able to do more and more cool and amazing things. Like open a wormhole, or time travel, or make it snow or strike lightning based on his emotions.

He’s able to do so many things and he uses these powers for reasonable causes and in what I find to be beautiful ways. This was 100% my favourite part out of all the many things that happen and are going on throughout the story, which is saying a lot. I really especially love some of the imagery and descriptions relating to Matt using his various abilities.

Throughout this book Matt tells to himself two conflicting narratives about food, one of them is “Food is love” because people make, bring and buy food for the people they care about and the other is “Food is failure” because it means losing all the advantages of hunger (and potentially gaining weight). I think this is an interesting contradiction and how he thinks about this can show his character development throughout the story.

I have mixed feelings about how they portrayed Matt’s recovery, it was really short only one or two chapters at most, but they did specify that that was in summary and I did like the way it showed that process. I just wish it was a little bit longer, it stood out to me that it was that short, not that it should’ve shown the reader every detail but I think it would’ve been more impactful to me personally if it was a bit longer.

I absolutely adore the ending, because even though Matt and Tariq don’t end up together Matt has a hopeful future ahead of him, he’s still recovering but he’s doing a lot better than he was before. Throughout his entire recovery process he was sure that his powers and abilities were gone after he started eating again but the ending leaves that open. He might be able to use his power without having to literally starve himself and that’s a very powerful sentiment, considering the rest of the story and how much those powers were important to him.

One of my only problems is that this technically could encourage eating disorders and anorexia, for example if a young teen who already had a bad self image or low self-esteem reads this book then they could take some of the advice and rules literally. There’s hardly a good way to give a disclaimer Not to Starve Yourself in the middle of a story in which the main character starves themselves. But I really think it’s dangerous without them, because this book could seriously do some damage to vulnerable readers.

I personally think the author should’ve included a disclaimer and hotlines or resources before the start of the actual story so that readers remember not to literally follow the Rulebook they are reading, despite even the main character encouraging you to do so.

There are also times when from Matt’s perspective he says things about eating disorders that might not be 100% accurate. Like boys not being able to have eating disorders or ignoring certain signs and symptoms, which could also be slightly harmful. This is very important to show the characterization and what Matt thinks and believes but it also should not be taken seriously.

As I mentioned before this book has a lot of representation and there’s lots of diversity amongst the characters, with regards to race, religion, sexuality and identity. Overall this book is really good and I would definitely recommend it.