Monday, July 27, 2009

Book Review: Wintergirls [2009]

I've known several of them over the course of my life: girls who disappear into the bathroom after meals, girls who push food around rather than eating it or punish their mouths as they consume what little substance they allow themselves. I'm sure most people might recognize a friend or classmate or relative by these signs. Eating disorders are more common than we might like to admit, and of course they aren't just a problem encountered by women. Among other topics, New York Times food critic Frank Bruni details his struggle with bulimia in his upcoming memoir (excerpted here). Self-deprivation of this sort involves control more than anything else. I have occasionally experimented with starving myself, for a variety of idiotic reasons--I know, for example, that after a certain amount of time without eating, you can convince yourself that you don't need to eat. Luckily, I never met a sugar-laden item I could successfully resist, and I usually manage to remember that eating is pretty important. All of which is a roundabout way of introducing Wintergirls.

Like Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls is an "issue" novel, but in this case the issue is body image, and the eating disorders and self-mutilation that too frequently accompany it. Lia, our first-person narrator, is a (possibly) recovering anorexic whose former best friend, the bulimic Cassie, dies horribly alone. Although they hadn't been speaking for months prior, Cassie leaves Lia 33 messages on her cell phone during the course of her last night, and Lia is wracked by guilt--quite literally haunted by Cassie--because she didn't pick up. Whatever marginal progress she might have been making by moving into her father's house and learning to care for her younger half-sister is steadily eroded as Lia spirals farther and farther out of control, until she is forced to decide once and for all if she really wants to remain among the living.

While I didn't really like the typographical choices Anderson used to convey Lia's underlying thoughts (strikethrough text, smaller font sizes and right justification, and italics beginning and ending a flashback, blank pages [shades of New Moon]), there are few books that I have read with a near-permanent wince and frequent--especially toward the end--verbal exclamations of "oh, no!" This was largely due to the way Lia's barren interior landscape forcefully engendered my own depression and misery. The pressure Lia is operating under feels disturbingly real and life-threatening. The scenes between Lia and her parents were among the most powerful, while those where the reader is lost in the wilderness of Lia's mind occasionally felt swamped in metaphor.

Wintergirls also feels a little bit like what it is: an adult's attempt to capture the inner life of a teenager struggling through something it is difficult for many adults to fully understand. She admits in this interview, that the "issue" yielded the character, rather than the reverse. And that's OK, Anderson should absolutely respond to the needs and stories of her letter-writing fans, but the book loses something undefinable and organic as a result of its constructed nature. However, Anderson clearly did her research about anorexia and cutting, hitting every point she could, and candid discussion of these issues is certainly welcome. Overall, I think Speak is probably a stronger book, but Wintergirls could play a similar role, educating readers about eating disorders.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

Boy, those "forum postings" from anorexic girls were really disturbing.

1 comment:

Cassandra Mortmain said...

Have I told you that I love that you're posting these reviews the last couple months? You're such a thoughtful writer, and they are really smart and informative. I'm glad I follow you on twitter so that they're constantly brought to my attention.

Also: it's Oscar, isn't it? I think it is, and if it is, I totally approve. Although I'm sure I'll approve no matter what.