Peter Paddington, at over two hundred pounds, is constantly bullied and picked on by his classmates as well as his two older sisters. In spite of his weight, I am sure every pre-adolescent can identify with Peter, the 13-year-old protagonist in Fruit: A Novel About a Boy and His Nipples by Brian Francis. I had forgotten some episodes in my life at that age yet Francis took me back to a very insecure time in junior high school. Perhaps one episode not common to many–or any–is that Peter’s nipples talk to him. They have voices that only Peter can hear. His nipples argue with him and represent his inner voice or his suppressed truth. In order to silence them, as well as to keep them in place since his chest does have a habit of bouncing out of control, he binds them with tape. Peter starts with transparent tape, making starlike pasties for each nipple. Then he moves on to masking tape which he wraps around his entire body, binding them in place. After repeated trips to the local store to buy more and more masking tape make him paranoid what the salesman will think of him, Peter tries a wide elastic bandage, which ensheathes his cherry-sized nipples. He spends the entire duration of the novel struggling with his loquacious nipples, never knowing when they will have another physical or verbal outburst.
Fruit, a finalist in the 2009 CBC “Canada Reads” competition, is one of the fastest books I have ever read. Francis writes dialogue so realistic that I could hear it being spoken. I am a tragically slow reader, not turning a page until I have grasped everything that the writer intended–and then nine times out of ten flipping back to reread pages after the writer explains more later on. It’s a wonder I ever finish a book at all. With Fruit, I turned page after page as if the novel were a child’s flipbook.
Francis captures what it’s like to be a gay pre-adolescent, when you haven’t even come out to yourself yet. While there is an overbearing sense of loneliness in Fruit, as Peter has not one male friend (the term used here is the ambiguous “boy friend”) to his name, Francis keeps the atmosphere light and joyful, as Peter certainly isn’t living a life of suicidal depression. He loves his paper route and a certain Mr. Hanlan, whom he has a crush on. Peter loves to dance and lip-synch, and he hangs out with gutter-mouthed Daniela, who curses like a sailor and is the nearest thing to a best friend. Peter develops another crush on the most beautiful boy in his class, and dreams of going out to the movies with him and calling him up for a chat. His attempts at becoming close to this blond Adonis will strike a chord with anyone who felt he or she was the loneliest person in school. The idea of being gay never enters Peter’s mind, yet it is his nipples that reveal the news to him without ever uttering the G-word.
The pain and sadness of being an outcast in school will resonate with all readers yet Fruit won’t make you cringe like flipping through your junior high school yearbook would. Take a trip back to grade eight and have a laugh about it all (as I certainly did) and then see how much of yourself is still there.