Book review: Wintergirls

I recently came across a book review of How to Disappear Completely and an interview with author Kelly Osgood at the Reel Girl blog.

Of the book, the reviewer states: “Osgood attempts to do what no other eating disorder memoir I’ve ever read has done: she de-glamorizes anorexia and exposes it as the ugly, stuck, boring, waste-pool that it is.”

Cover of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

That description reminded me of another book about anorexia that I’d read years ago – Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson – so I figured I’d re-read it to see what I thought.

The good

Anderson does an effective job of not glamorizing or romanticizing the eating disorder of her protagonist, Lia, or of Lia’s late best friend, Cassie.

Anderson makes it very clear that Lia’s life is consumed by her disorder. She is isolated, overwhelmed, and miserable.

Lia’s preoccupation with food and weight repeatedly drives her away from her family and alienates her from the people who used to be her friends. Her disorder conspicuously denies her all of the trappings of a “normal” teen girl life; she can’t keep up with her schoolwork, she doesn’t go to school events, she doesn’t have any hobbies, sports, or activities that she enjoys. Her number one focus is losing weight, and you’d be hard-pressed to claim that she enjoys it.

Because the book enters Lia’s life at a time when she is already deeply ill, it does not portray any of the aspects of anorexia that could be potentially romanticized – the triumph of losing the first few pounds, the euphoria of control, the satisfaction of deceiving those around you.

After weighing herself and discovering that her weight has hit a new low, Lia thinks:

I could say I’m excited, but that would be a lie. The number doesn’t matter. If I got down to 070.00, I’d want 065.00. If I weighed 010.00, I wouldn’t be happy until I got down to 005.00. The only number that would ever be enough is 0.

Lia’s original desire to be thin is no longer relevant. She is not trying to fit in to a particular pair of jeans, and she does not feel beautiful or desirable. She is ill. The de-glamorizing of the disorder may be in part because the book is fiction, not memoir.  Anderson admits that the idea for the book did come from her own past disordered relationship with food and weight, giving her insight into the self-loathing that such disorders bring.

According to Kelly Osgood, the author of How to Disappear Completely:

Nine times out of ten, writing about anorexia beguiles the at-risk population for all the wrong reasons and the person writing about his or her own struggle fuels the fire by producing a long, hubristic poem, a elegy, an ode to a presence gone and dismissed. An homage.

Wintergirls is definitely not that.

The bad

I love not-eatingFrom my point of view, any negatives about this book are dependent on personal preference. For instance, in trying to capture the internal stream-of-consciousness monologue of an unwell teenager, Anderson often takes liberties with language and style – Lia refers to herself in the third person, crosses out words that represent thoughts she does not want to have, and slips into poetic language and fairy-tale imagery to capture the feelings of confusion and disorientation of severe anorexia.

We held hands when we walked down the ginger- bread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers. We danced with witches and kissed monsters. We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.

Further, the book left me curious about Lia’s relationship with Cassie. While we saw snippets of their friendship that revolved around their disordered behaviors, and their interactions after Cassie’s death, we never really get to see them be friends. Anderson hints at the kind of intense, life-changing friendship that can exist between teenaged girls, but never really shows it to us. Obviously you can’t put everything into a book, and the focus of this story clearly wasn’t the friendship, but the aftermath of Cassie’s death, but I still would have had a deeper understanding of their relationship if I’d seen more of Cassie, Lia’s friend, not just Cassie, Lia’s ghost.

The ugly

As is the case with any book about eating disorders, I suppose, Wintergirls might not be the best read for anyone susceptible to or recovering from an eating disorder. While Anderson spent a lot of time researching the book, speaking to doctors and eating disorder experts, to make sure that she was not presenting the story in a way that might encourage disordered behavior, the fact is that any story of disordered eating can possibly trigger unhealthy behaviors in a vulnerable person.

Particularly for me, Lia’s cataloging of her weight and her revulsion at the way that “normal” people ate were surprisingly powerful reminders of a time when I thought similarly. While those unhealthy thoughts and behaviors are long behind me, the ease with which this book brought them back up was startling.

Have you read Wintergirls? What did you think? What do you think about eating disorder novels in general?

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4 responses to “Book review: Wintergirls

  1. I have not read this book, but from your review it seems like it is still triggering. Does it still talk about specific behaviors?
    Kudos to the author for not glamorizing it, but you also don’t want to give young adults reading this book and specific “tips and tricks” about disordered behaviors.

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    • Yeah – she talks about certain behaviors for fooling weigh-ins – the protagonist drinks a lot of water and has a bathrobe that she’s sewn coins into so that she weighs in at above her actual weight, and she exercises compulsively and takes laxatives
      . I do wonder if avoiding tips and tricks is one reason that the author starts the book further into Lia’s eating disorder – if she had started at the beginning there would be more of those deceptive behaviors to describe.

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    • While I’ve never seen this dynamic in real life, I do get how it functions. The prospect of recovery from an eating disorder or addiction can probably be pretty terrifying in a lot of ways – having someone else alongside you in persisting with the disorder might make it feel like you don’t HAVE to face that fear. In Wintergirls, I thought that the way Cassie kept trying to drag Lia back was the most chilling part of the story; I think the author did a fantastic job of highlighting just how toxic that kind of relationship can be.

      Thank you for commenting!

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