“A funny, poignant, emotionally intelligent and beautifully written novel that takes the reader on a journey that is by turns heartbreaking and inspiring. I highly recommend it.”
-Alisa Valdes, New York Times and
USA Today bestselling author
“Ruden’s debut novel is more than merely funny. It skewers our cultural obsession with the superficial, lampooning everything from fad diets to reality television and self-help gurus. And Bethany’s inner journey from bitterness to forgiveness is one that will resonate with all readers.
Read it for the laughs, reread it for Ruden’s profound insight into the transformative power of forgiveness.”
-Mike Mullen, author of Ashfall
“Anarchic slapstick laced with timely truths make this wry, occasionally raunchy debut a standout.”
– Kirkus Reviews
Title: Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet
Genre: Young Adult
Author: Jenny Ruden
Publisher: Koehler Books
Sixteen-year-old Baltimore teen Bethany Stern knows the only way out of spending her summer at Camp Utopia, a fat camp in Northern California, is weight-loss. Desperate, she tries The Forgiveness Diet, the latest fad whose infomercial promises that all she has to do is forgive her deadbeat dad, her scandalous sister, and the teenage magician next door and (unrequited) love of her life. But when the diet fails and her camp nemesis delivers the ultimate blow, Bee bids sayonara to Camp-not-Utopian-at-all to begin what she believes will be her “real” summer adventure, only to learn that running away isn’t as easy—or as healing—as it seems.
Her wry and honest voice bring humor and poignancy for anyone, fat or thin, tired of hearing “you’d be so pretty if…[insert unwelcome judgment about your appearance from loved one or perfect stranger].”
AMERICAN ENVY ENDED without a miracle. No boulder. No cannibal either. There was only an infomercial TJ and I were obligated to view because the couch had sucked the remote under one of its cushions.
The commercial featured a giant fishbowl filled with multicolored scraps of paper. Xylophone sounds tinkled in the background. At first, I thought the commercial was for some kind of craft, like moonsand or a Chia Pet. Then a voice blasted out from the TV:
DO YOU NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT?
I was lifting scratchy cushions, rummaging for the remote. When I heard the voice, I turned around.
HAVE YOU TRIED EVERY DIET AND FAILED?
On the screen that glass bowl glittered again, rainbow swirls of paper spinning around.
I WANT TO HELP YOU, the voice roared
No doubt I had heard various diet infomercials a million times, but never during prime time and never one quite as hypnotic. I couldn’t look away. TJ seemed rapt too. We studied the screen where the fish bowl overflowed with paper like jewels.
PAY ATTENTION. THESE NEXT FIFTEEN MINUTES COULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
There was something about this voice. Like a magnet.
“It’s not about food,” a lady wearing a giant sunhat said. She lounged beside a pool, the glittery bowl positioned next to her sandaled feet. “I weighed two hundred pounds and thought it was about food.”
Then the woman stood, dropped her towel, and twirled in a gold bikini. “But I discovered it’s about forgiveness,” she said.
“Hey!” TJ said. “My boss went on this diet.”
I shrugged. TJ’s boss at Rent-My-Ride went on every diet.
YES, the voice intoned, IT’S ABOUT FORGIVENESS.
That was when the room darkened a notch. It was dusk, and Baltimore had just breathed its last streak of sunlight against the pavement outside. The city’s gutter smells and sounds drifted past the open basement window. I should’ve told TJ to go home. It was getting late. And it was hot—too hot to even have the television on, which seemed to breathe fire. But I couldn’t talk or move. Even TJ didn’t get up to excuse himself and walk to his row house across the street.
Like my sofa had been slicked with paste, we watched this commercial as intently as we had American Envy. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen entire minutes. There were testimonials from people all over the country. Men and women held up size 20 pants, size 24 skirts, 3XL sweats. Then they pirouetted in something slinky, showed off their skinny jeans, patted their flat tummies.
“The Forgiveness Diet,” they all chimed, was how they did it. THAT’S RIGHT, said the voice. WITH OUR PROVEN THREE-PART SYSTEM YOU CAN DROP THAT UNWANTED WEIGHT. INSTANTLY.
On the screen, a middle-aged guy stood before the ocean.
“Hi, I’m Michael Osbourne, and I invented The Forgiveness Diet. At twenty-seven years old and three hundred pounds, I was carrying too much weight and too many burdens. I decided to write everyone’s secrets on a piece of paper. All mine too. Then I put that paper inside a bucket. Enough, I said to myself. It’s time to forgive them.
“Before I knew it, the weight vanished. And yours will too. You can read about my innovative approach to mercy weight loss in my new book. If you call now, we’ll even throw in your very own Forgiveness Jar to get things started. For free. Free!
Call now to find out more about this amazing opportunity. Come on, what do you have to lose?” The corners of his mouth lifted as if attached to strings. “Except weight.”
He turned and ran out into frothy surf.
A phone number flashed across the screen. “Maybe you should buy the book,” TJ said shyly.
“Why?” I asked, still staring at the television.
“Because my boss lost mad weight. And fast!”
I rolled my eyes. TJ’s boss was always trying to thrust TJ onto better things. Like herself.
He nudged me gently. “If it worked you wouldn’t have to leave for camp tomorrow. You could see me graduate. Watch me audition.”
“You mean you don’t want me to go either?”
“I mean you could stay here. Just buy the book.” “I don’t have a credit card,” I said.
“What about PayPal? Order the e-book.”
The fish bowl, on the screen again, brimmed with folded pa- pers. fat people walked up to the jar, kissed their papers, and dropped them inside. As they skipped off it appeared they lost the weight before our very eyes.
“You can do that,” said TJ. “Just write down the names of people who have pissed you off.”
“I’m sure the book has some kind of specific directions. There must be more to it than that.”
“Maybe not,” said TJ. “My boss said she just had to for- give her boyfriend for cheating on her and forgive her fingers for stealing change out of the rental cars, and she lost like ten pounds.” TJ stared at his Converse. “Bee, you have a lot of people to forgive. Maybe all that pissiness is stuck inside you making you big, like that voice said. It makes sense in a way.”
I bristled. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
TJ removed his glasses and rubbed them on his shirt, a ritual he only performed when something bothered him. “You could make it like a bucket list. Write everything down like in those long letters you used to write.”
“Those letters sucked. You’re crazy.”
“Your letters were amazing. Just write it true. Then put it in a Cool Whip container.” he replaced his glasses. “You could start with that night, you know. When we almost—”
“Shut up, TJ.”
“It will never work.”
TJ sighed. “It worked for all of them,” he said, nodding toward the television.
YOU CANNOT FAIL the voice bellowed. GUARANTEED. Then the commercial ended.
“I mean you don’t want to go to fat camp, right?” TJ asked. “This might be your only hope.”
“But it’s just an infomercial,” I said. I looked back to the television where a woman discussed a very absorbent paper towel. I dug around behind the sofa, felt the hard plastic of the remote, and pushed the rubber button. The television buzzed off. “How am I supposed to get thin by tomorrow?”
TJ walked to the basement stairs and sat on the third step. Behind him moonlight dripped in the window. It had to be one hundred degrees in my house, yet there was no sweat on his forehead. TJ never sweated. When he opened his mouth, he spoke slowly, as if I were retarded.
“Look, Bee. Remember that guy who levitated on American Envy last season?”
Here we go, I thought. “How could I forget when you bring it up every other day?”
TJ’s eyes darted around the room, and he lowered his voice, conspiratorially, “Well, I finally figured out his secret.”
“Yes, TJ. It’s called Hollywood. It’s called camera tricks.” he stood up on the step and spread his arms wide. Then he brought them together in front of him like he was praying. He put his chin down near his collar and prepared himself for what looked like a swan dive directly into the coffee table.
“It’s called the Balducci levitation. You stand at an angle,” he said, rocking on the balls of his feet. “So from where you’re sitting it looks like I’m floating, but really, my foot is just on my ankle, see?”
We had that American Envy episode on DVR. For weeks TJ was over my house pausing it, flipping his head upside down in front of the television, trying to determine if the contestant had some sort of fan contraption crammed in his pants.
TJ stumbled off the step and landed, face down, on our shag carpet, which was the exact color of a tennis ball.
“Didn’t it look like I was floating a little?”
“No.” I said. Then, “Well, maybe slightly.”
He studied his shoes like they were to blame. “I’m still practicing,” he explained. “My point is that instead of trying to figure out how the Levitator couldn’t do it, I tried to work out how he did.”
“I don’t understand how writing down secrets and forgiving people will make me thin.”
“You don’t need to understand how it works.” TJ stood and stepped closer to me. “You only need to know that it’s possible.” When he reached behind my ear, I expected he would flick out a silvery coin or, if he was feeling mysterious, a gardenia. But he didn’t. He smoothed my hair back behind my ears and looked directly at me.
“You never believe what’s right in front of your face.”
“I believe in you,” I said.
He leaned in. “Don’t believe in me,” he whispered. I could see the red indentations his eyeglasses had pressed into his nose. “Believe in you.”
TJ dropped his hands from my face. When he brought them up again, they held a crumpled ball of paper. I started at it curiously, then I touched it with the tips of my fingers.
“Open it,” he said.
Once in a while, he could still surprise me with a magic trick. “Go on,” he urged.
I slowly uncrumpled the paper.
It read: I forgive my dad for not seeing me.
“Where did you get this?” I asked, my voice tight.
He shrugged. “It was behind your ear.”
“You’re full of magic, Bethany.”
“Tell me how you did this. Seriously.”
But TJ had slipped into illusionist mode where every movement was choreographed and every smile insincere. He might explain later how he’d managed to write this on a restaurant napkin when I wasn’t looking. He might cop to how he’d found purple ink, my favorite, and how he’d made the handwriting look identical to mine. Exactly like mine. Maybe he’d admit to somehow crawling into my future ahead of me, but not now. Now he only kissed my forehead, lustlessly. The way you would kiss a cat.
“You could forgive him,” he said, referring to the slip of paper, “your dad, for ignoring you at Chuck E. Cheese’s.”
“Stop,” I said.
He plucked the paper from my fingers. “You could forgive me too,” he continued, “for everything. You know. Last year.”
I could, I thought, but I won’t. Leave it to TJ to present it like an option. An option about as viable as a diet based on forgiveness.
“So if you won’t try the diet then will you at least write to me every day you’re gone?” he asked as he readied himself to leave. “Not just texts, e-mails too. Long, epic ones.”
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out and read the text he’d somehow sent when I wasn’t looking. you my girl.
He’d never told me how he’d managed that trick either.
Not that it mattered. Tonight, just like every other night, I’d fall for him all over again. I’d believe I was his girl. I’d accept that someone so extraordinary could have a thing for me—someone so ordinary.
ABOUT JENNY RUDEN
Jenny Ruden has published short stories and essays in Nerve, Salon, Eclectica Magazine, Literary Mama and High Desert Journal. She won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction, was named a finalist in Glimmertrain’s short fiction contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart prize two years in a row. She has worked with teenagers for over ten years as a teacher of Reading, Writing and GED, and has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon. She lives with her husband, two daughters, two basset hounds and cat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
She does a flawless impersonation of a normal person. Don’t be fooled. She’s a writer.