Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Book Review: WINTERGIRLS
I talked to an editor recently who said she doesn't care where a book takes her, as long as it takes her away. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson, is a book that definitely takes you away. But it's not a journey to a specific place or another time. Reading WINTERGIRLS is like taking a trip inside the mind of a teen aged girl with anorexia.
The book begins when the main character, Lia finds out that her best friend, Cassie, has died alone in a hotel room. Lia and Cassie have been friends since childhood. Their mutual need for acceptance and competition with each other lead both of them to eating disorders--Lia to anorexia and Cassie to bulimia, (ultimately the cause of her death). Although they haven't been close for months, Lia knows that Cassie called her 33 times before she died. Lia is plagued by guilt because she didn't answer Cassie's call, and she feels responsible for Cassie's self-destruction and death.
Lia's hates herself and is "hungry" for her parents' attention. Her self-loathing manifests itself in anorexia and in cutting herself. In Lia's world every food is reduced to it's caloric value, and every bite she takes (or doesn't) is an exercise in self-control and punishment.
The story is told through Lia's thoughts. Her daily battle with food and her parents' apathy is shown by crossed-out words in her stream of consciousness. She's haunted by Cassie's ghost, and shows signs of mental instability that go beyond hunger or guilt-induced visions.
This book is beautiful and poetic. Laurie Halse Anderson is a master of imagery and words. The story is dark, but anorexia and self-mutilation are dark and they are real problems. This leads me to my
The dark subject matter in this story may be disturbing for younger readers, (actually, it would probably be disturbing for anyone who reads it,) but it is heart-breakingly authentic. There were moments when I was reading that I recognized myself in Lia, both now and especially when I was a teenager. I think that the negative self-talk that plagues Lia is typical of many teenagers. (If not most at, least at some point.)
Because it is graphic and dark I would recommend this book for fourteen or fifteen-year-olds and up. Again, know your kid. I told my 12-year-old daughter about WINTERGIRLS and she has no desire to read it, at least not now. However, one of her friends has read this book and loved it.
This is an important book for parents to read with their girls. Just explaining the plot to my daughter brought up a good discussion about eating disorders and the idea of self-mutilation. She didn't even know what anorexia or bulimia was, and honestly I wish it was something I could keep from her forever. Unfortunately, the way things are...
A moment of ranting
At age twelve my daughter is already very aware of body image and the idea of size 0 (she has some very small friends). On a recent shopping trip I literally couldn't find any jeans that were over a size 2 at a popular clothing store. A clerk helped me find larger sizes (and by larger I mean 5s) after I said (loudly) that there were no clothes for real people in that store. The unrealistic ideal that we see in magazines and on TV, I believe, is a big contributor to eating disorders on both ends of the scale--anorexia and obesity. (See my post on Creating Strong Female Characters.) I don't see that image changing anytime soon, so it's important that girls are educated about the dangers of eating disorders and the importance of liking yourself the way you are now.
There's a message in WINTERGIRLS for parents as well about being aware of what is going on in our kids' lives. We all have busy lives, we all have our own issues, but we can never let our children feel like they are invisible. Many of Lia's issues in this book seemed to come from a need to be noticed by her parents. (May I suggest reading and discussing books with your kids as a way to get to know them and strengthen relationships?) As a mom I'm grateful for books like WINTERGIRLS that allow me to open up a discussion with my kids and help them learn a lesson without me always being the teacher.
The dark reality this story paints is a clear vision of the dangers of eating disorders and how much you miss out on or lose when you allow an obsession to rule your life. The hopeful ending shows that there can be a way out, not an easy way out, but there is always hope.
WINTERGIRLS is a powerful read. I highly recommend it. Laurie Halse Anderson is amazing.