Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

First of all, I'm a Friday Featured Blogger over at Steph Su Reads! Go check out my interview here.

Lia's ex-best friend Cassie is found dead in a motel room, alone. On the night of her death Cassie called Lia thirty-three times. Lia never picked up, and now she's being haunted by Cassie as she slides back into dangerland: her all-consuming struggle to be thin.

First of all, how popular is the name Lia in books right now? She's the main character in this book, Crashed by Robin Wasserman and my current read, Prophecy of the Sisters.

I read several books in my teens about anorexia, all very powerful books whose titles have been lost in the mists of time. But none came close to the lyrical power contained within the pages of Wintergirls. The theme is ripe for revisiting. The internet has brought a new facet to body-image disorders since I was a teenager: pro-ana forums, short for pro-anorexia. Proponents argue that anorexia and bulimia (pro-mia) are lifestyle choices, not psychological disorders. The forums are a place where those with eating disorders can go for "thinspiration", tricks for not getting caught, and support. (There are also several forums of the same name that are actually there to help anorexics recover and heal. Why they call themselves pro-ana is a sweet mystery to me.)

There has always been the concern that YA books about eating disorders "teach" teenagers how to be anorexic or bulimic. The portrayal of these disorders in books is so bleak, so heart-wrenchingly awful, so downright shocking that the idea that anyone would claim that a teenager would get to the end of a book like Wintergirls and decide to jump on the eating disorder band-wagon is ridiculous.

Lia views the world through a prism that makes everything about food; not only what she puts in her mouth, or what other people put in their mouths, but their actions as well.

He regurgitates his chewed story for me, another paying customer feasting on the dead blonde.

She's been institutionalised twice, both times against her will, and fed until she reaches a "safe" weight. She's disgusted by the idea of food in her body, but at the same time she craves it, knows she needs it desperately. As her weight drops she feels stronger, but her hallucinations grow worse. Her character is drawn with such sensitivity that instead of wanting to grab Lia by her bony arms, shake her, and scream "Eat, Lia, EAT!" as her parents do, the reader knows it's not as simple as that--Lia won't get better unless she wants to, and she's so lost that she has no idea even where to begin. So she tries to make herself disappear instead, one pound at a time.

The novel is told in first-person present tense, and if it weren't for Lia's dry and evocative observations, being right there with her as she runs on empty would be too heavy to handle. The telling is brisk and honest. Lia's compulsions to eat, to stuff her face with box after box of cereal, slice after slice of pizza, are stricken from the record--literally--and replaced with affirmations that she hates eating, that she loves not-eating. Her parents are dealt with similarly. She replaces mentions of "mum" and "dad" with Professor Overbrook and Dr Marrigan.

Memories of Cassie are revisited almost reluctantly, with more about their unhealthy friendship revealed as the haunting grows worse. They make a pact as pre-teens to be the thinnest girls in school. Their progression from lively little girls who play with dolls into teens with full-blown eating disorders is somewhat obscure, especially for Cassie, as we aren't inside her head. At one point Lia muses that she's not particularly smart or beautiful or talented, so her way to be special is to be thin. I was gob-smacked when I read this. I could read you a page from my diary when I was sixteen that is almost identical. The only difference is that I've never had an eating disorder. Anderson's portrayal of Lia's struggle is one that any who is or has once been a teenage girl will in some way identify with.

I thought Elijah was vaguely redundant. At first I thought he symbolised what Lia was missing out on: a real life, part of which could include a boyfriend. There's a fantastic scene on page 131 on the way to Cassie's funeral that illustrates a fundamental difference between men and women: our stubborn attitude to clothes and footwear that hurt us. In Wintergirls it goes like this:

"They look good."
"No, they don't," he says. "If they hurt you, they're hideous."

Which is, of course, a metaphor for anorexia: you're killing yourself, you're dying--you think you look good but you don't. Elijah's role petered out so unsatisfactorily that it made me question why he was included at all.

Apart from secondary character issues--that are somewhat due to the close-first narrative--Wintergirls is a complex, thought-provoking read. I'm extremely pleased with my first foray into Laurie Halse Andersons work. It's little wonder she is the "issues" queen.

Last thoughts for those who have read Wintergirls: One question that I felt could have been explored further is "Did Lia kill Cassie?" Not literally, of course. Not picking up the phone the night she died is understandable--the two girls weren't speaking. But Lia revealed how when they were friends, Lia sabotaged Cassie's recovery, telling her how much weight she'd lost, gloating over how little food she was eating. Cassie pulled away, severing their friendship, but is Lia still responsible, at least partly? I'd have to do a reread to really form an opinion, but what do you guys think? How much does Anderson exonerate Lia at the end of the book--completely, or with some reservations?


  1. Wintergirls was so heartbreaking to read. It was powerful. As for your question, who knows. I've always thought that Lia was partially responsible, for doing just what you stated as an example above.

  2. great review! i still have this one in the tbr pile.

    btw: you've just been awarded...again ;-D

  3. I had no idea that this book was about an eating disorder. It looks passionate and fantastic.

  4. Wow - great review. I too had no idea Wintergirls was about an eating disorder. Sounds like a powerful book.

  5. "At one point Lia muses that she's not particularly smart or beautiful or talented, so her way to be special is to be thin. I was gob-smacked when I read this. I could read you a page from my diary when I was sixteen that is almost identical." Yeah...I mean I never had an ED but I think we all feel this way at some point.

    Great review--as for the question of whether or not she killed Cassie, I was wondering that, too. I mean, on the most basic level she did ignore Cassie when she reached out and called her like thirty times. And the sabotage--but then my basic instinct is to try and always sympathize with the narrator so it's hard to see her like that. It's a great question.

  6. I refuse to wear painful shoes!!

  7. Rhiannon -
    Excellent review as always.

    This note is however to tag you for "Whats on your Desk Wednesday" - even though it is Thursday for you in Aussie Land. You may want to wait until next week, ignore this altogether, or go on to torture some of your blogger friends.
    post link
    take care and have fun

  8. Rhiannon,

    I have come across your Wintergirls review multiple times, when I have been surfing the internet, and googling "Wintergirls".
    I have been tempted to comment on this a few times, and finally I have the time to do so.

    As a loyal and adoring Laurie Halse Anderson fan, I purchased and read Wintergirls the day it came out in March. At first, as I read, I was mesmerized and simply amazed, as I usually am by Ms. Anderson's work. Her writing is genius, extroadinarily beautiful, and poetic.

    But through the eyes of a normal human being that does not foster disordered eating habits, Wintergirls is simply a deeply saddening but touching story.

    It was not until I began to develop eating disordered thinking, exercised slight disordered habits, and my obsessive compulsive nature controlled my life, that I viewed Wintergirls in a different light.

    Without launching into an unnessessary autobiography of my problems with food and weight obsession, I'll simply say this: it started with a photo of Miley Cyrus, a mirror, and then Wintergirls just wasn't a fictional YA novel was a list of rules, a mindset, and an almost "guidebook" I needed to follow.

    So, I have to say that while your review has very intelligent highlights, sadly, I strongly disagree with you when you state, "...the idea that anyone would claim that a teenager would get to the end of a book like Wintergirls and decide to jump on the eating disorder band-wagon is ridiculous."

    With all due respect, I think you should reconsider that statement. I believe that Wintergirls is a work of genius, but for those readers who have been controlled by obsessive-compulsive thinking, and afflicted with eating-disordered lifestyles, to them, the lyrical words of Wintergirls are truly more than just words, but a self-hating voice that becomes rooted in their minds.

    Thank you.