Friday, April 03, 2009

Review of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. Viking (Penguin), March 2009.

This new novel by Anderson, of Speak uber-fame, is truly difficult to read. There were several times when I had to put the book down because I felt like I was going to be sick. Anorexia in general is a difficult topic to read or hear about, especially when so many girls have personal experience with it, either via their own behavior or that of a friend. Anderson makes it even more difficult with her intense first person narration and unusual stylistic touches. This difficulty does not mean that the book is not well-written or worth reading. On the contrary, this difficulty is part of what makes the book great. Like Living Dead Girl, which I reviewed in a previous post, Wintergirls SHOULD be difficult to read. A book about anorexia that is easy to read is likely not, in fact, a book about anorexia at all.

The story centers on a "wintergirl" (a term of Anderson's invention, alluding to the myth of Persephone) named Lia who has been previously hospitalized for her anorexia and is having a major relapse after her fellow wintergirl and best friend, Cassie, dies in a horrible way. The story is built primarily on character and relationships, especially Lia's relationship with her stepsister, Emma, her mother and father, and her stepmother. Details about her relationship with Cassie are gradually revealed as a secondary back-story (the back-story develops from end to beginning as the main plotline moves from beginning to end).

Lia's stepmother, Jennifer, breaks the "evil stepmother" mold and is one of the most positive influences in Lia's life. I enjoyed this break from stereotype, especially when I read Anderson's acknowledgements and learned that she has a good relationship with her own daughters' stepmother, the woman who "nudged" Anderson to write about anorexia. Lia's sister Emma is a well-developed character, and I have to admit I am still worried about her. What will happen to her now that the novel is over? Will she become a wintergirl like Lia (some of the novel seems to suggest this is a possibility), or will she learn from Lia's mistakes? Lia herself has a voice almost as strong as Melinda's from Speak. She shares some of the same sarcasm and dark humor that characterized Melinda. She also shares the same triumph and final grasp at hope that Melinda is able to achieve.

The unusual stylistic touches I mentioned share a lot in common with online writing formats. For example, the novel isn't divided into chapters, but numbered like "posts". Also, she uses "strikethrough" to indicate thoughts that Lia has, but chooses to repress (usually cravings for food). There are a couple of blank pages during a pivotal scene, although the use of blank space is far less unusual than the strikethrough dialogue.

Wintergirls succeeds at its core purpose- to present a truth about a girl dealing with anorexia and the underlying pain that often leads to eating disorders, and the larger truth that there is hope and the possibiliy of recovery for people dealing with this devastating illness. This is a novel that defies classification as pure "YA" as adults can easily relate to the pain Lia feels in her Winter and cheer for her as she begins her long path towards Spring.


I had the pleasure to hear Ms. Anderson speak tonight at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC (a lovely store which I highly recommend). I was struck by how genuine she was (I commented to my professor that "She didn't even wear dress up clothes." She had on some adorable "custom" Converse). I witnessed her interactions with a group of teenage girls and she was incredibly patient and kind to them. Several comments she made during her remarks and the question-and-answer session were memorable, but a few comments particularly so. Her advice to teachers is to let our habits and attitudes as readers serve as a model for students, as this will teach them more than any direct-teaching ever could. Also, she strongly advocates working with the public library and local librarians in helping students procure and use library cards. She talked about the different processes for writing historical fiction and "YA" novels, as well as the moral issues one must consider when writing about difficult topics like sexual assault and anorexia. I would encourage any fan of her work to see her speak if possible.

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