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?