“Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson

30 Jan


First off, a huge THANK YOU!! to the good people at Penguin Young Readers Group for the wonderful box of goodies they sent, which included an advance copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's "Wintergirls." Laurie just won the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award for her incredible contributions ("Speak," "Fever 1793," "Twisted," etc.) to teen literature. "Wintergirls," due out in March, is her latest novel, and it is an absolutely haunting, riveting book about a lost girl starving herself to death in slow, painful measures. It is, in a word, stunning.

As the story begins, Lia is a high school senior whose estranged best friend, Cassie, has just been found dead in a rundown motel room. Like Lia, Cassie sought refuge from her many problems by obsessively monitoring her food intake. Cassie binged, purged, and drank quite a bit to dull the pain, while Lia measures and rations every tiny morsel she consumes; when that doesn't help enough, she cuts. Lia's anorexia is so severe that she's twice been hospitalized in an eating disorders facility. Unfortunately, Lia's still so far gone that she hardly eats anything, to the point of dizziness, dehydration, and racing heartbeats. Lia hides under bulky layers of clothes, compulsively exercises all night, and even figures out how to deceive her stepmother during weekly weigh-ins. Lia's anorexia is so grippingly portrayed, from her racing self-destructive thoughts to her physical agony to her frantic need to tally up her meager calories, that it's almost painful for the reader to endure. We see so clearly that anorexia has almost nothing do with food and just about everything to do with control. Lia herself recognizes this, as she knows full well that her goal of 90 lbs. will soon become 85, 80, and 75. There is no point, short of death, where this starvation ends for Lia, and that fact is simply horrible.

So what's so great here? Everything. Laurie's writing is powerful, using descriptions that are at times lyrical and haunting. Whole passages read like poetry. For example, Laurie's portrayal of wintergirls as being caught between life and death is a beautiful metaphor for anorexic girls. Her literary techniques — including striking out Lia's real thoughts in favor of the words she knows she's expected to say — never seem gimmicky. In fact, we are so deeply connected to Lia's broken mind and spirit that we feel her suffocating despair and shame. Teen novels don't get more gripping than this, believe me.

I also loved how every character is so wonderfully fleshed out. Lia's loving, well-meaning parents are flawed and often say exactly the wrong thing, causing her to spiral further into anorexia's clutches; her little stepsister Emma idolizes Lia in private, but is embarrassed to see her at a soccer game; and her new friend Elijah, a lost traveler himself, is both kind and, ultimately, cruelly honest. Even Cassie's ghost — yes, you read that correctly — is as conflicted a friend as ever. Each person here feels and behaves like an actual, complicated person.

The combination of realistic characters, atmospheric writing, and stark insight into one wounded girl makes "Wintergirls" one of the best, most compelling books a teenager could find. While this book is often difficult to read, mature readers will find it utterly engrossing and nearly impossible to put down. I absolutely recommend "Wintergirls" to readers in 8th grade and up. I hope those who need this novel's message of hope most will discover it, too; perhaps the finalized edition will include some resources to aid in recovery? If not, please let me highlight the ANAD site and, more generally, Teen Health's Eating Disorders Resources for those seeking more information. Look for "Wintergirls" in mid-March of 2009. I promise, you will not be disappointed.

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Posted by on January 30, 2009 in Uncategorized


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