Friday, February 12, 2010

Wintergirls - Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 278 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: February 11, 2010
Finished: February 12, 2010

From inside cover:
“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie were best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies. But now Cassie is dead. Lia’s mother is busy saving other people’s lives. Her father is away on business. Her stepmother is clueless. And the voice inside Lia’s head keeps telling her to remain in control, stay strong, lose more, weigh less. If she keeps on going this way – thin, thinner, thinnest – maybe she’ll disappear altogether.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the National Book Award finalist Speak, bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson explores one girl’s chilling descent into the all-consuming vortex of anorexia.

I honestly didn't want to read this book once I knew what it was about. I've had my own body issues in the past and thus have avoided books dealing with eating disorders and the like, not the kind of things I want in my pleasure reading. I love the author's work though, I've read a few others by her and her writing is just astounding, so in spite of the subject matter I decided to give it a go. I'm really glad I did.

Wintergirls is heavy on the winter/ice imagery as a metaphor for the girls frozen in this place where they have control over their bodies and yet they don't, and also plays on the Persephone myth as well. When we first meet Lia, it is winter and six months since her last stay in an eating disorder clinic. She finds out her best friend, Cassie, has just died due to complications from bulimia which leads her to be haunted by Cassie's ghost as she spirals out of control. She loves her little sister, Emma, but is very ambivalent towards her parents, whom she thinks don't care a lick about her (and it's shown Lia and her condition is not their first priority). Not only is Lia anorexic, she also cuts herself. The reader counts calories with Lia, views her true thoughts as they are crossed out in the novel and replaced with less "weak" sentiments. The first thing I tried to figure out was why Lia and Cassie developed their eating disorders in the first place. In school, we were always taught that negative body image caused them, but it becomes apparent that negative body image was just the start for the two girls (at the ages of 11 and 12 no less). After a point, it's clear it became something that gave them power where they had none. They had no control over being ignored by their parents in favour of work, divorce, stress from school, from being viewed as a constant disappointment; but they did have control over what went into their bodies and how much they ate. After Lia hits her breaking point and almost dies, she has to make a decision over whether to surrender her power over herself and the strength she think she has in order to start on the road to recovery.

The writing in this novel is beautiful. Lia's narration is very real, and some of the sections I wanted to write out because some of them fit into real life so perfectly. Here's my favourite:

"The snow drifts into our zombie mouths crawling with grease and curses and tobacco flakes and cavities and boyfriend/girlfriend juice, the stain of lies. For one moment we are not failed tests and broken condoms and cheating on essays; we are crayons and lunch boxes and swinging so high our sneakers punch holes in the clouds. For one breath everything feels better. Then it melts. The bus drivers rev their engines and the ice cloud shatters. Everyone shuffles forward. They don't know what just happened. They can't remember." (page 15).

I read this and I think of all the kids I teach, the little ones and the older ones, and it makes me remember high school. There's a lot of emotion in this book, and you can't help but get sucked into it.

Amazing book and should be read, however, due to the subject matter, I definitely don't think it should be read unsupervised by anyone with a suspected eating disorder or serious body issues (the book explores ways Lia hides her weight from nurses and counselors). It could definitely be seen partially as an anorexia how-to. When dealt with properly and discussed though, I think this would make for some wonderful teaching moments for girls.

Thoughts on the cover:
Going all out with the winter imagery, we see Lia's face encased in ice. The hardcover version even sparkles in certain spots when held in the light, so that makes it appear even more like ice. Love this cover.

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