47 pages 1 hour read

Chelsea G. Summers

A Certain Hunger

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


A Certain Hunger is a 2020 novel by Chelsea G. Summers. It is a thriller that incorporates elements of philosophy, horror, and satire. Summers uses mixed first- and second-person narration to explore the interiority of Dorothy Daniels—a cannibalistic murderer—and examine themes of Desire and Consumption, Power Dynamics in Relationships, and The Intersections of Food, Sex, and Death. Summers also uses second-person narration to allow Dorothy to speak directly to the reader, where she invites the reader to consider their own morality in reading her account of her life and crimes.

When the novel begins, 52-year-old Dorothy is in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The story itself is a memoir Dorothy is writing. Dorothy relates the story in the mixed first- and second-person point of view, speaking directly to her reader, and alternating between describing her past crimes, the murders of four men, and her current time in prison. Due to the non-linear structure of the text, the following timeline is provided:

Dorothy kills Giovanni in 2000, hitting him with a car. She then removes his liver and eats it. Dorothy murders Andrew in 2007 after drugging him and killing him with carbon monoxide. She removes his buttocks to eat. In 2009, she serves Gil a meal on his boat. After it induces anaphylactic shock, she throws him overboard after removing his tongue. In 2011, Dorothy cuts Marco’s throat after giving him oral sex and then performs an elaborate kosher butchery ritual on his corpse. Finally, in 2013, she impulsively kills Casimir with an ice pick, but she doesn’t eat anything from his body.

This guide refers to the Kindle edition.

Note: To maintain clarity, when Dorothy writes about memories, the Chapter Summaries & Analyses in this study guide use the past tense. When she describes events in her modern-day life in prison, the Chapter Summaries & Analyses uses the present tense.

Content Warning: A Certain Hunger contains an explicit scene of rape, explicit and coarse sexual language, and vivid passages of murder, mutilation, and cannibalism.

Plot Summary

Dorothy relates an unremarkable, pedestrian upbringing in Connecticut. She spends high school experimenting with food, drugs, and sex. She describes these years as her training for adulthood, as she observes her group of friends so that she can mimic their behavior.

At Pennistone College, Dorothy meets her roommate, Joanne. Joanne represents the frail, anxious women that exasperate and bore Dorothy. Joanne moves to another room after they discover their mutual loathing.

When her mother develops stage four cancer, Dorothy and her siblings briefly return home. Before Dorothy’s mother dies, they tell each other that they have never been each other’s favorite. Using the money she inherits after her mother’s death, Dorothy begins her post-college career as a writer in Boston. She uses her time at the Boston Phoenix to sharpen her writing skills, eat well, make professional and sexual connections, and gather information on people. She encounters Joanne again. Joanne is a demonstrator, driving a bulldozer over vases shaped like vulvas. She now goes by the name Tender deBris. Dorothy bails her out of jail without understanding why. Dorothy eventually moves to New York, and Joanne/Tender becomes Emma Absinthe and moves to New York nine years later.

Dorothy seduces Andrew, which leads to a high-paying job at the magazine Noir. Her relationship with Andrew ends after she learns that he is having sex with her assistant. Her next relationship begins with a man named Gil, whom she chooses when Noir begins losing business.

While in Italy on assignment, Dorothy is excited at the prospect of reuniting with a man named Marco. She met him in Italy during college. He was secretive but also the only man she couldn’t find any damning information about. Marco is initially faithful to his wife, disappointing Dorothy. This leads her to seduce a man named Giovanni, whom she soon kills by hitting him with a car. She removes his liver, cooks it, and eats it. During her time in Italy, a man who follows her during her frequent walks rapes her. Dorothy describes the experience as fascinating and never sees him again.

In 2011, she returns to Italy after pitching a story on Marco’s business. He is faithful to his wife for most of her visit, and it intrigues her. She decides that she won’t kill him if he has sex with her. She stays aloof and observes him as they tour his properties. Marco eventually kisses her, but she decides she can’t change the deal she made with herself, and she kills him.

Finally, she kills a man named Casimir after meeting him in a hotel bar. She stabs him with an icepick at Fire Island. Shortly afterward, she receives a visit from two detectives, Kiandra Wasserman and Lou MacDonnell, after failing to return a phone message to Detective Wasserman. Dorothy is nervous during the interview and grows disturbed when Wasserman says she loved a piece of her writing. Dorothy never uses her real name when she meets men. Wasserman acts like she has something that will implicate her in Casimir’s murder, but Dorothy can’t figure out what she might have missed.

She becomes paranoid and thinks that Emma told Wasserman about her. She sneaks into Emma’s apartment and strikes at her in bed with a cleaver, only to find that the bed is empty, and the cops are there waiting for her.

She describes her trial, and a butcher-shop receipt is a key piece of evidence. Emma testifies for the prosecution, but surprisingly, she can’t say with certainty whether Dorothy spoke to her about the icepick or anything else to do with Casimir other than having sex with him. Regardless, the receipt, combined with her attack on Emma, is enough to convict Dorothy.

She writes briefly about Alex, the only man she ever fell in love with. She reconnects with Alex after bumping into him in the street as he is buying a hot dog. They had once written for the same publication. Dorothy finds herself doing things simply to make Alex happy, which surprises her. When he proposes to her atop the Empire State Building, she turns him down because the good version of herself brought out by Alex bores her.

Finally, at a group therapy session in prison, Joyce, the group leader, says Dorothy needs to forgive herself. Dorothy says that she forgives Emma, even though she isn’t sure that Emma actually did anything wrong: Dorothy still doesn’t know whether Emma conspired against her with Wasserman. Her forgiveness confuses Joyce, who doesn’t understand how to forgive someone who hasn’t done anything wrong.

Afterward, Dorothy opens a letter from Emma, though she usually throws them in the garbage. Without revealing details, it confirms that Dorothy told her everything about the murders, and Emma promises to keep her secrets.