Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)

Lia and her best friend Cassandra made a pact to be the skinniest girls in school. Even after their friendship ended, they each continued to pursue this goal. Then Cassandra was found dead in a motel room and Lia realizes that the phone calls she had ignored that night were from her. Suddenly Lia is haunted by her friend and is even more determined not to eat, no matter how hard her family tries to make her fat. They just don't understand.

Lia and Cassandra considered themselves "wintergirls" and that is how Lia also described the other patients at the clinic where she was sent a couple of times to recover. Because of her eating disorder Lia was often cold, and the text was infused with other wintery images as well. The climax of the novel even takes place during a snowstorm. Lia herself is frozen somehow, suspended in a place where she can't move forward, rather like her friend who has died and is still hanging around.

Lia's voice was a darkly poetic with strong visual imagery: "When I was a pink, hairless mouse, she took away the razor. I curled up in a matchbox filled with sawdust and covered my face with my cold rope tail." Regarding a struggle with her mother she says, "She tried to talk me out of it, but I pulled up the drawbridge, locked it with iron bars, and posted an armed guard." Fairy tale imagery is also sprinkled throughout, including at least two references to a "gingerbread path." But sometimes another voice came through, one more like a regular teenage girl in New England: "In the spring of fifth grade, the boob fairy arrived with her wand and smacked Cassie wicked hard." Frequently words and phrases are crossed out, which some readers may find an annoying affectation, but I think it works here. This character is not being honest with herself (or anyone) and I think these corrections just reinforce that.

At times I just wanted Lia to snap out of it and not be so self-indulgent. She was forcing everyone around her to make her the center of their worlds. There's a passage in which her mother tries to force Lia to eat. Lia says "You aren't supposed to push me. I have to feel safe with food." Her mother responds "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard." I agree! Lia doesn't ever feel safe with food and she needed someone to take a hard line with her. Her mother thought Lia's father and step-mother were going way too easy on her, which they were. Like Lia's mother, I began to lose patience with her behavior, which I know isn't fair - it's not as though Lia deliberately had an eating disorder because it was enjoyable.

Mostly I appreciated how the story was told through her experience, how she felt so threatened by everyone who was clearly just trying to help her, and how she was so unequipped to cope with the guilt surrounding her friend's death. It was this guilt that triggered Lia's behavior again (she had barely been recovering as it was) and it became clear just how much the two girls had enabled each other. Lia even admitted sabotaging Cassie's recovery: "I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone." But now she is alone, and the horror of being left behind to live with the consequences is more than she can handle.

Eating disorders are rather a staple in teen books, and Anderson does a great job of weaving the issue into a larger well-crafted story. This is no after school special; it's exactly the kind of good storytelling I'd expect from a writer of this caliber. If you're not familiar with her, I also recommend Speak and Fever 1793.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Andersen is a talented writer, isn't she? I've read Speak (about rape) and that was a powerful read. I'm glad this one was also good.

3goodrats said...

I'm glad my book group picked this. I hadn't read her in a while and had forgotten how good she is!