I felt incredibly privileged to arrive at work a few months ago and open up the package addressed to myself from Fox, Finch & Tepper (a publishing house based in Bath, UK) giving me one of the first UK editions ever printed of ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ by Peter Hedges.
I knew the film was released in 1993 and starred Johnny Depp and one of my favourite all time actors: Leonardo Dicaprio but had no idea until I contacted the publishing house that it was originally novel. When I received the book, I told myself that I wouldn’t watch the film until after I’d read the book so as to not influence myself based on the caliber of actors starring in the film.
I found the blurb to be really basic and not very descriptive as to how the novel would pan out but I actually preferred it that way because as I had previous knowledge or assumptions of the story, I could read and imagine what happens next completely innocently. I would predict what would happen but every time I was wrong. I was so sure I knew what the outcome of the ending would be based on Gilbert Grape’s telling of his story and his increasingly strange and abusive behaviour. I was wrong, it took a completely different turn to what I had interpreted.
Hedges writing was so simplistic but had such a powerful impact on me, especially the fond way he would talk about his “retard” brother Arnie Grape, the main character Gilbert writes as if he doesn’t care about his family or himself and his own emotions but he quite often writes “I wanted to say this but didn’t, instead I said,” which just proves the intense conflict he has with himself and how in order to protect him and his family he speaks what they want to hear. Gilbert Grape takes the father role from a young age after his father’s suicide when he was younger despite Larry being the eldest son in the Grape family and this has an incredibly severe impact on himself and the eldest daughter Amy. Whilst obese Momma is sat smoking, eating and watching television every day Amy and Gilbert become the mother and father of the household, looking after everyone and taking responsibility of things they shouldn’t have to whilst living at home and taking care of their mentally handicapped brother when their mother is lazy and fat.
It is not an overtly sad story but if you choose to read the novel in depth and read in between the lines, then you can see the pain, sadness and other emotional baggage that every single character within the novel has and influences their behaviours and various personalties and relationships with others. The ending is pa enrtially sad not because of the crucial event that takes place but how the characters respond and act, in particular Gilbert and Amy Grape.
I haven’t read a book I truly have enjoyed as much as this in a while, it was something completely different to anything I’ve read about before. A poor family struggling to make ends meet in America is not a situation that I’m used to; it’s usually about the rich upper classes struggling to find love or becoming corrupt and killing themselves, very rarely have I come across a novel with such genuine characters that you could place into real life society and know they would fit in.