Book Review: Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson

bc-wintergirlsWintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Lia and Cassie have been best friends since elementary school. They made a pact when they were 13 to be “the skinniest together.” Years later, Lia has been let out of the Eating Disorder clinic  for the second time. She and Cassie haven’t spoken in months, the last time many hurtful things were said. When Cassie turns up dead in a motel room, Lia must face her own ghosts, Cassie now being one of them.

I won’t lie. This book is hard. Having worked with  people with acute eating disorders for a couple of years, it brought me right back to how it feels to be sucked in to the warped fever dream of someone who is starving themselves.

Told from the perspective of Lia, Anderson uses several techniques to get across Lia’s deteriorating mental state (from strategic strike throughs eg. Mom (Doctor Morrigan), to Lia’s  lyrical and simultaneously grotesque hallucinations.

Anderson accurately portrays the tricks anorexics use to make it seem like they are eating (hiding food in the napkin, the “I already ate” excuse, wearing large clothes to hide their skinniness + more) but where she really outdoes herself is in Lia’s stubborn refusal to get help, to open up to anybody.

I was taught to treat Anorexia as a condition, one that gets its claws into their victim with the ferocity of a werewolf at full moon. They do not control anything they do or say while in the grip of this monster. The anorexic sees their ability to refuse food as being “strong”, and any attempt to make them eat as the nosy meddling of everyone else.

Lia might be out of the clinic when we begin the book, but she is still in the grips of her condition. She still counts all her calories, refuses to get close to anyone, or open up to her therapist. She is alone inside the truly frightening world of her own head.

There has been much talk about the concept of “sick lit” a term coined by a journalist in the UK to describe books for kids and young adults about children who suffer from illness, physical or mental but can also encompass any story that deals with a hard and uncomfortable issue.

The arguments against books that explore the tough issues are that:

1. They can trigger unhealthy behaviours (especially books about cutting or eating disorders, the two topics Anderson confront in this book).

2. Their exploration of these topics are gratuitous and sensationalist.

3. They are morally bankrupt (as, in this author’s  opinion of John Green’s Fault in our Stars, where she boils down the plot thus: a young girl with cancer wants to get laid before she dies- which, if you have read the book is unfair bordering on absurd )

I vehemently disagree with all of the above points, which I have detailed in this post. But suffice it to say, the job of any book is to expose the reader to different realities. For young people, it is the best most safe way possible to learn about the wide, scary world.

Having said that, I came close to changing my mind about this one.

Not because of the writing. It is intense, lyrical, soul shredding. And not because Anderson did not treat her subject with the seriousness it deserves- her portrayal of Lia is downright haunting.

But because – and I honestly don’t know how to make this not personal – I am someone who has always had to grapple with some devastating voices in their head when it comes to my own body. This book plunged me deep inside all those fears and insecurities and stubborn misperception of myself I have taken years to get over.

On the other hand, a girl who suffers from an eating disorder might find comfort in knowing that she is not alone, that she isn’t the only one who is dealing with the hateful voices in her head.

It is really hard to know how anybody is going to react to a book. I think it is probably best to write them, put them out there and hopefully they will be taken in the spirit they were meant- in this case, as a cautionary tale, a painful, tortuous coming of age journey,  not a how-to starve yourself guide.

So, can I recommend this for a school-wide read? No. It is too….too hard.

Would I recommend this book to individuals who like to read and who like to live through the difficult stories so they can understand a little bit more about humanity- their own and other people’s? Most definitely.

One thought on “Book Review: Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson

  1. But. But. Okay, I totally get where you are saying and most especially where you are coming from, but does too hard not mean, maybe, a book SHOULD be read?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: