Growing up in a rapidly changing Harlem, eight-year-old Malaya hates when her mother drags her to Weight Watchers meetings; she'd rather paint alone in her bedroom or enjoy forbidden street foods with her father. For Malaya, the pressures of her predominantly white Upper East Side prep school are relentless, as are the expectations passed down from her painfully proper mother and sharp-tongued grandmother. As she comes of age in the 1990s, she finds solace in the music of Biggie Smalls and Aaliyah, but her weight continues to climb—until a family tragedy forces her to face the source of her hunger, ultimately shattering her inherited stigmas surrounding women's bodies, and embracing her own desire.
Achingly beautiful ... Sullivan portrays Percy tenderly, as though his entire being is rooted in the resentment of hunger of any kind ... Charged moments...are often blurred by Sullivan’s excessively poetic language, which makes it difficult to understand exactly what is happening. ... Still, Big Girl triumphs as a love letter to the Black girls who are forced to enter womanhood too early — and to a version of Harlem that no longer exists.
... doesn’t offer Malaya any sort of fairy tale ending, nor does it preach a gospel of self-acceptance at any cost. In contrast, Sullivan constructs a more complicated narrative. In the wake of a personal loss, Malaya comes to see how much she has to gain and recognizes that no matter what anyone looks like, they have the right to live fully in the world and experience it free of shame. Only when Malaya adopts this viewpoint does she start to emerge from the cocoon she’s built around herself and into a bigger, more beautiful life.
It unfurls in one long stream of messy, painful, big Black girlhood, and this intense interiority gives the novel a breathless, almost unbearable momentum ... Though Sullivan writes every character, even minor ones, with seemingly effortless depth, Big Girl stays relentlessly focused on its protagonist, Malaya ... In the hands of a less talented writer, this closeness could slip into tedium. Sullivan turns it into something miraculous ... Big Girl is also full of moments of tenderness, joy and even hilarity, especially in the scenes between Malaya and her father, and in her relationship with her best friend, Shaniece ... Sullivan's novel is expansive and exuberant, loud and fierce, a celebratory, redemptive coming-of-age story.