Book Review – Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

wintergirls - book coverSomewhere between Speak and The Impossible Knife of Memory, I missed that Laurie Halse Anderson had published another book—Wintergirls. Luckily I have friends who alerted me to my oversight and now I have corrected it. Always willing to dive into the darker realms of growing up, Anderson addresses the psychology of eating disorders—a subject everyone knows exists but few are willing to discuss or explore in the face of a society that doesn’t wish to change the ways it portrays and commodifies young women’s bodies.

Lia has been through treatment twice before to deal with her anorexia (a term that is not used within the narrative itself) but both times she has managed to escape intact, telling the doctors, nurses, her parents, and psychologists what they want to hear in order to hurry the process along. Though she and her best friend since childhood Cassie had suffered a falling out before their final year of high school, when Cassie turns up dead in a local motel and the other girl’s eating disorder is determined to be the root cause of her death, Lia finds herself haunted by Cassie’s ghost—Cassie had tried calling Lia thirty-three times the night she died. Is it in some way Lia’s fault? Will Cassie’s death turn out to be the wake-up call Lia needs or the final nudge over the edge?

The novel is told through Lia’s first person perspective so that the reader has an unfiltered look at Lia’s thoughts—a particularly important perspective for the subject matter. Understanding the distorted self-images that are tied to eating disorders is incredibly difficult but Anderson accomplishes it in a way that shows the selectivity of it all; many of Lia’s pessimistic observations regarding society and her relationships with her divorced parents are tragically realistic and true, even as her interpretation of her emaciated body is horrifically far from the reality. The narration can feel scattered and disjointed at times, off-topic and wandering but some of that is intended to evoke the impact of dehydration and malnutrition on the brain, a detail that is effective when understood but can prove distracting and confusing in the moment—brilliant but a difficult balance to strike.

As far as the plot and pacing go, it dragged a bit for me. The elements surrounding Cassie and Lia’s friendship are perhaps too far removed from the novel’s present; I was able to believe Lia’s emotional connection to Cassie and her death but as a reader failed to make any sort of connection to either myself. The reader doesn’t know Cassie in any real way—which is fine, because she isn’t our focus—but it makes it difficult to completely understand some of Lia’s actions between the limited backstory we get as readers and the affected manner of Lia’s immediate point of view. Everything with Elijah in the back half of the novel wound up feeling remarkably anticlimactic and the revelations/resolutions in the last few chapters didn’t feel complete. The time jumping in the final chapter seems to skip over some of the crucial elements of Lia’s post-revelation experiences that left me unsure of how genuine—and lasting—the changes might be.

Like most of Anderson’s novels, the ending aims for a final hopeful note but this is the first instance where I’m not sure I believe it.

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