Of all of the books that I have read this summer, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls was by far the most intense and challenging. One of Penguin’s Point of View books, I was prepared to get drawn into a story that addresses darker content. It didn’t take much to get caught up in the narrative, both the way Halst uses vivid images and loaded language to wave her story and the intensity of the story, itself. Wintergirls tells the story of Lia, a young woman who has struggles with anorexia for most of her life. Spiraling in and out of control, she has lost touch with her best friend Cassie, her co-dependent partner-in-crime, or in this case, partner-in-eating disorder. The book opens as Lia hears the news that Cassie’s body has been found in an empty motel room. It follows her as she is haunted by Cassie, the manifestation of her darkest inner thoughts, tugging her towards self-destruction.
Anderson’s writing is technically profound. Her prose flows like lyrics, and many passages seem to beg to be read out loud. Lia’s story is told in stark and vivid imagery. The text seems almost like a confessional, a diary full of Lia’s deepest thoughts. Some words and phrases are crossed out, as though Lia is choosing her words and the image she wants to project to us, or maybe to herself. Every word of this novel is drenched in Lia’s demons, her preoccupation with food and her body, her guilt over Cassie’s death and her inability or refusal to prevent it, the disintigration of her family and her contribution to its demise. For these reasons, I find this novel to be a triumph. However, despite the beauty of her storytelling, every moment of this story terrifies me. Lia’s psyche is a black hole, and as I reader I felt I was being sucked in. I agonized with her over pounds and calories. She fought like a trapped animal to preserve her disorder, and that was very disorienting to me. As a protagonist, I want to be on her side, but her side scares me to death.
I think that any girl or woman will be able to identify with many of Lia’s struggles. As readers, we aren’t always asked to look at these dark corners of our minds. It’s impossible to experience Lia’s story without feeling a little like you are looking in a mirror. I would have trouble recommending this book to a teenage girl for this reason. I felt blind-sided by the depth and intensity I reached in my reading. My world was repaced with Lia’s, a world that is decidedly damaging. I do think these subjects need to be addressed with teenagers, however this book isn’t enough. It needs to be paired with honest conversation.
I am glad that I read this book. It makes me ten kinds of uncomfortable, but I feel that I have new insight from having read it. If I were to recommend it, I think I would also provide some resources for learning more about eating disorders and depression.