Laurie Halse Anderson's upcoming young adult novel Wintergirls is sure to draw comparisons to her 1999 novel, Speak. Both books give the reader an inside perspective on a condition that most people aren't comfortable thinking about. In the case of Wintergirls, that condition is anorexia. Wintergirls is the first person story of Lia, a girl who devotes her considerable determination to a single cause - that of being thin.
Through Wintergirls, Anderson shows us both the skewed viewpoint of girls like Lia (who, even as they waste away to skin and bones see themselves as obese), and the deviousness and single-mindedness with which they can pursue their goals. Lia's mother is a doctor, and she still can't make her daughter eat. Lia sees the impact that she's having on her impressionable young stepsister, but she still doesn't eat. As the story begins, Cassie, Lia's one-time best friend and fellow eating disorder sufferer, dies, and even that isn't enough of a wake-up call to change her.
What's particularly striking about the book, what had me lying awake at night, was the fact that Lia's life is pretty normal. Sure, her parents are divorced, but they both care about her, they live in the same town, they all have plenty of money (though not excessive amounts). Sure, she's under a bit of pressure to do well, and go to college, but she has a huge safety net. And yet... she still falls into the pit of anorexia.
Well, ok, there's one thing about Lia, apart from her anorexia and other self-destructive behaviors, that isn't normal. The ghost of her dead best friend talks to her. The presence of Cassie in Lia's life lends a creepy, haunted quality to the book, making the gorgeous cover a perfect fit.
Anderson's writing style for Wintergirls is unusual, and takes a bit of getting used to. The story is told from Lia's sometimes fragmented viewpoint. There are sentences like "Talk = yell + scold + argue + demand", and sometimes little poems, or even strings or numbers or words. Every food item mentioned has the calorie count included in parentheses, like "... he shoves the pie (545) in my face." Thoughts that she doesn't want to think litter some of the pages, sometimes right-justified, as they sneak in from the edge of the page.
Quite often, Lia will have two sets of thoughts, the first, unfiltered thought shown in strikethrough text, while the other, more acceptable thought, is left in regular text. For example:
"Phone calls were made. My parents forcemarched me into
hell on the hillNew Seasons..." (Page 9, ARC)
I found myself puzzling over these strikethrough sections, mining them for clues about what was really going on. I had the feeling, even as the book comes across as Lia's fragmented jumble of thoughts, that Laurie Anderson thought very carefully about the placement of every word. She uses unflinching imagery throughout the book, too, lending additional power to Lia's story. For example:
"I reach for the steak knife hiding in the nest of spoons. The black handle is warm. As I pull it free, the blade slices the air, dividing the kitchen into slivers... Here stands a girl clutching a knife. There is grease on the stove, blood in the air, and angry words piled in the corners. We are trained not to see it, not to see any of it." (Page 3, ARC)
"The buzzer sounds. Students float from room to room. The teachers tie us to our chairs and pour worlds into our ears." (Page 17, ARC)
"The girl shivers and crawls under the covers with all her clothes on and falls into an overdue library book, a faerie story with rats and marrow and burning curses. The sentences build a fence around her, a Times Roman 10-point barricade, to keep the thorny voices in her head from getting too close." (Page 33, ARC)
Wintergirls is lyrical and searing, and carefully researched. It's painful to read, but important, too. Wintergirls doesn't give any easy answers for what families can do to help girls caught in the net of anorexia, but it does expose the true depth of the problem. It also reveals some of the secret techniques that anorectic girls use to defeat the wardens around them (parents, nurses, etc). And maybe, just maybe, this will be one of those books that holds a true mirror up to teens who need it, and tells them that they need to get help. In any event, it's a suspenseful story with a complex, wounded protagonist, a realistic setting, and Laurie Anderson's vivid writing. Highly recommended for teens and adults. This is a book that you'll be hearing about for a long time to come.
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Publication Date: March 19, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy, sent to me by the ever-so-generous Stacy Dillon
Other Blog Reviews: In Bed with Books, The Last Book I Read, Zee Says, Just Blinded, Book Envy, Sarah Miller, Reading Rants!, Presenting Lenore, The Well-Read Child, and more... See also my reviews of Chains and Speak
Author Interviews: Authors Unleashed
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.