Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Lia and Cassie were friends from the time they were in second grade through their junior year in high school. In fifth grade, they made a pact with one another to become the skinniest girls around–Cassie through purging and Lia through strenuous exercise and eating very little. Now Cassie is dead, alone in a motel room after having called Lia thirty-three times in the course of an evening. Lia is left alive to struggle with her guilt over not answering Cassie’s phone calls and her own anorexia, or rather her parents’ attitude toward it. She doesn’t see what’s wrong about what she’s doing; she only sees the flab and fat boiling under her skin.

Her parents are divorced, her mother a coldly work-obsessed cardiologist with little time for the child who was the result of an unplanned pregnancy, and her father a clueless college professor incapable of maintaining a stable marriage of his own, much less deal with a mentally disturbed daughter. Stepmother Jennifer has been saddled with making sure Lia eats and with tracking her weight. (Here, Lia runs through all the tricks to conceal her continued weight loss–sewing quarters in her bathrobe hem, drinking her fill of water just before the weigh-ins and so on.) She continues to lose weight.Only her beloved though somewhat pesky stepsister, Emma, provides a spark of light in Lia’s life and even then, there’s a shadow of doubt about whether this is true love or an excuse to walk the razor’s edge of cooking and baking…for others.

Lia has been hospitalized multiple times for treatment of the side-effects of her anorexia, and stayed twice in a residential clinic, as had Cassie. Unfortunately, none of the treatments touched the underlying causes for either girl, and now Cassie is beyond such things. Or is she? Lia is haunted by her friend, quite literally: on one occasion, Cassie gets out of her own coffin at the viewing and runs off, on several subsequent days when Lia is feeling stressed, Cassie strolls casually out of Lia’s closet complaining of the stench of gym shoes, and when Lia’s family is being stringent about Lia’s eating habits, Cassie comes to show her where the laxatives are in the drug store as hallucinatory snow drifts down around them.

Not even coming to know the young man who was the last to see Cassie alive, Elijah, can help Lia.

In the end, as Lia is lying at death’s door in a cold deserted motel, she has a final confrontation with Cassie, who wants her friend to join her in death. The two reconcile in this in-between encounter, realizing that Cassie must take with her only the good things of her life, as relinquishing the hatred and resentment undoes her ties to the living and the world they inhabit. Or perhaps this reconciliation simply allows Lia to assuage her own guilt about not being there for her friend–we’ll never know–but in any case, Lia gathers the strength to stagger to the motel office, where there are quarters and a functioning pay phone with which she can call home.

This was a hard book to read, even as an adult with a reasonably sound body image. The amount of detail Anderson includes about the mental workings of a dedicated anorexic is excruciating.

I appreciate the fact that Anderson makes clear that disordered eating starts before ‘adolescence’; body dysmorphic syndrome can begin much younger, especially with kids who are in sports or activities which place a heavy emphasis on one’s appearance–ballet dancing, ice skating, modeling and so on. The disease may not yet meet clinical thresholds, but the seeds are there already.

I also appreciate Anderson’s emphasis on the fact that anorexics ultimately may not be cured unless they want to be cured; if they do not see that there’s anything wrong with their behavior and their weight, they will simply relapse upon leaving the hospital, just as Lia did.

While this might be considered an encouragement for anyone as deeply entwined in anorexia as Lia, hopefully it will scare off many more who, knowing little about the disease, consider it a glamorous way to attract attention or to symbolize their inner conflicts. (and the number who’ve done that much would probably startle school administrators and parents) Anderson touches on the effect the disease has medically on the anorexic herself, but also the emotional effects on the family and friends: Cassie’s parents descend into dysfunctional depths of depression as a result of their daughter’s death and Emma, Lia’s adored stepsister, is traumatized into shock by walking in on Lia in the middle of a suicide attempt, having nightmares about ferocious monsters gnawing on the other family members. Ultimately, I think Bulik’s comment in the Jezebel review is appropriate: “Books such as these should be read with careful parental supervision. In the best of all possible worlds, this could be a conversation starter between parents and teens rather than a dark world that teens enter alone reading the book in isolation.”

New York Times


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