Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Plot Summary: Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

Okay. I’m not sure what’s going to happen after I write this review. After I finished reading the story, I did a quick search to see the general reaction to this book, and found very few to be unfavorable. So, I might get flamed up a storm, or some people might pop out of the woodwork and agree with me. There’s only one way to find out...

So let me just say it right out – I didn’t love it. But not because of the content. I think it delves really well into the head and heart of a girl with an eating disorder, and we understand in a palpable way that her disorder isn’t about the food. It’s about the girl. Laurie Halse Anderson has always been genius when it comes to this kind of thing. And I think it’s great that she wrote this book, and I still recommend reading it.

But I didn’t love it. Why? Well, to put it bluntly, I thought the writing got in the way.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Let’s start with the obvious: present tense. There are some great books that have been written in present tense, and they were done so well that I didn’t even notice it. In this book, I noticed. From start to finish.

Then, there was the style in which the story was told. It’s obviously lyrical and literary, which is fine when done well. For me, it was too lyrical. The words chosen distracted me from the story rather than pulling me deeper inside, especially in the early chapters.

Earlier this week, I talked about purple prose, and how many powerful or lyrical words can work well in poetry. In the story LOOKS by Madeleine George, there is a poem about anorexia that captures it so well, with strong words and images, that it take your breath away. But pack so many words like those in a novel and you can exhaust your reader. After two pages of WINTERGIRLS, I was worn out. I almost didn’t get past page twenty, but I’m a big fan of Anderson so I trudged on. But I never hit that stride of being completely caught up in the story. And, for me, the words were too distracting...not purple, but too close to purple to be effective.

As a result, there were other things I noticed that seemed a bit too convenient. The biggest one was when Lia tells her therapist that she sees ghosts. I didn’t buy it. Before this scene, Lia mentioned how she’d made the mistake of giving her therapist keys to her brain, and she hated the result. I doubt she would make that mistake again.

Then there was the fallout between Lia and Cassie. One of the girls at school accuses Lia of being a terrible friend, yet we never find out what happened. One minute, Lia and Cassie were the best of friends. They next, they weren’t. Why? Because of pressure from Cassie’s family? We never find out.

Finally, Lia seemed too self-aware. Even before she threw her scale out the window, she made it clear that she knew that no matter how little she weighed, she’d always want to weigh less. Articulating this so well is incredibly profound for someone who’s a master at deluding herself that she’s a fat pig. She also says many times that she knows her eyes don’t work. If she knows this, why isn't there some level of distrust when she sees herself as a fat blob? I don’t buy it. People see what they want to see, and if we doubt it, even deep down, we don’t acknowledge it so well unless it fits with our delusions. The power of self-deception should never be underestimated. Because of this, Lia's story seem a bit message-y. The powerful and raw emotions can’t disguise that completely.

Still, this is a book I recommend. The subject is important and well-researched, the connection to the main character is amazingly close and strong, and the real problems behind Lia’s anorexia are obviously more than just food. This novel will give the reader great insight into this disease.


PJ Hoover said...

Thanks for the review. I haven't felt like I've wanted to pick this one up yet. I read Speak and thought it was great, but I'm not sure if I'll read this or not.

Jill Wheeler said...

As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, I must disagree with you when you say that, just because someone acknowledges they have a problem, they must be strong enough to overcome it.

Most people with eating disorders are intelligent enough to know that their brain is messing with them. I remember realizing that I just couldn't keep losing weight, yet sobbing because I couldn't give it up. I knew that I was thin, yet I felt fat.

I had some problems with the book as well, but my issue was more that I think LHA nailed the portrayal TOO well. When I was deeply entrenched in my own ED, I used Marya Hornbacher's WASTED as almost a guide to show me what to do. I fear that the numbers and behaviors portrayed in the book will trigger those struggling with EDs.

I don't remember the purple prose so much, as I read the book months and months ago (as an ARC), but that's LHA's style. I don't recall it bothering me. I do remember getting creeped out by the ghost so that I couldn't sleep when my husband was away.

Anyway, it was interesting to read your take on the book. If I get around to reading it again, I'll look for those issues you pointed out.

Tabitha said...

PJ - this book is not light-hearted. It delves deep into the seriousness of eating disorders, and doesn't gloss over the consequences. It's a great book, but not for everyone.

Jill - I think I need to reword that paragraph about acknowledging a problem, because what you took from it is not what I intended. I agree that not everyone is strong enough to deal with issues that they know they have. My point was that it's one thing to know you have a terrible, deep-seated issue. It's another thing entirely to be able to articulate it as well as Lia does. I think most people keep these things in the backs of their minds because it's easier that way. I realize that, in reality, some people can say it out loud (so to speak), even to themselves, and still keep doing what they're doing. But WINTERGIRLS is fiction, not real life. And, in a literary sense, Lia's acknowledgements didn't work for me. I'm glad they worked for you, though.

C.R. Evers said...

hmmm. . . interesting review.

I don't know if I'll read it, just because the subject is too disturbing for me. I may have to wait until a different time to be able to read it.

Anonymous said...

I did like this one very much, and I felt the style enhanced rather than detracted from the story.

And I do think people can be very clear intellectually about how bad a compulsive behavior is, and can even want very badly and clearly (articulately) to stop, at the same time they're deep into the behavior.

But even though we differ somewhat on this one, I'd never flame you, Tabitha! Reasonable people can disagree. :-)

Bish Denham said...

I thought the lyricism of the story was beautiful. Because the subject matter was so hard, so difficult, the beauty of the prose was, for me, what made it bareable to read. Powerful opposites.

Addicts know they are addicted and have difficulty stopping too.

I do agree with Jill. I was concerned that girls with eating disorders might be triggered or find resources. Minds that are already twisted can easily be twisted further until...they snap or go spinning in the opposite direction.