WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson
Wintergirls tells the story of eighteen-year old Lia and how she comes to terms with losing her best friend Cassie to the very disease that is slowly killing her. Cassie and Lia were best friends from the moment Cassie moved into Lia’s neighborhood when they were young girls and the two shared the secrets of their eating disorder. As young teens they made a blood pact to be the skinniest girls in their school and fulfilled their promise to each other by starving themselves into the thinnest bodies possible. After a falling out Cassie stops speaking to Lia and the two grow apart during their senior year of high school. At the start of the novel Lia is shocked to find out that her best friend has died of the eating disorder that grips them both, but only after attempting to call her thirty-three times on the night of her death. The rest of the novel explores the haunting sadness that Lia feels and the dramatic eating disorder that drives her to self-harm.
Wintergirls uses a few unusual literary techniques that make it stand out as a novel. First, the novel is written completely in the present tense, first-person point of view of the main character Lia. This use of present tense brings an immediacy to the plot of the story and is the perfect vehicle for exploring the damaged psyche of Lia. Having the story unfold as it is occurring, rather than looking back on events that happened in the past gives the novel a sort of diary feel, where we are directly inside the haunting thoughts of the narrator. The author writes some sections of the book in an almost stream of consciousness style where we are reading Lia’s thoughts as she thinks them. It is a very personal and intimate way of drawing the reader into the character’s thoughts and emotions.
Another unusual aspect of Wintergirls is the author’s obvious departure from typical grammatical and print style. She uses a strikethrough text to show the actual thoughts and feelings that Lia is trying to suppress. For example, when thinking about foods that tempt her we see her actual thoughts about the delicious smells and textures of the food, but they are printed struck through in the text. This text is then followed by regular printed text showing the thoughts she actually allows herself to have. There are also stylistic choices made by the author to show how Lia’s mind works. Whenever Lia eats a food we see the calories that food contains in parentheses in the sentence, which is what Lia is actually thinking about. She is not eating food for its nutritional quality or to enjoy the taste, but is instead only calculating the calories she has ingested. All of these stylistic choices really add to the feeling that we as readers are inside of Lia’s mind and are an active part of her emotional process.
Reading Wintergirls was a very emotional experience for me. Although I have never struggled with an eating disorder myself, the intimate details of Lia’s disorder as presented in the narrative were devastating. At the beginning I had a difficult time connecting with her, at times feeling that she was whiny or even acting a bit entitled. What drew me to her in a more sympathetic manner was her relationship with her sister, Emma. The tenderness with which she interacts with her younger sister and the protectiveness she displays in those interactions seems to me to be the way Lia wishes her family would have treated her. As the novel progresses we find that Lia feels disconnected from her divorced parents and she seems to be making up for that loss in her interactions with Emma.
I really enjoyed the author’s very different writing style. I appreciated the way that the author presented the stark reality of anorexia without sugar coating the truth. As Lia slips farther and farther away from reality and becomes more a victim of her illness I felt drawn right into her delusional world. I especially liked the use of Cassie as a ghost to show how far Lia is slipping away from reality. When I fist began reading, having the story written completely in present tense kind of threw me off, but as the story unfolded I really enjoyed bring right smack in the middle of Lia’s thoughts and felt like the present tense was the only way to present her slightly manic roller coaster feelings. It felt as though I were right in her mind, experiencing each trauma exactly as she experienced it, and in the end I really enjoyed the effect.
I think this book is an excellent starting point for a conversation about eating disorders and the effect we have on others when we make decisions. Although the book focuses mostly on Lia and her own internal struggle, the pain her family goes through is obvious. It is a difficult read and has some very disturbing images, but I think it is appropriate for a teen audience.
Just a personal observation here, but I disliked the ending of the book. The entire novel is so heart wrenching and sad that the hopeful tone of the last three pages feel a little out of the blue. I felt like the author just popped a hopeful ending in from nowhere. I understand that Lia is meant to have had a revelation in the hotel room where she realizes that she wants to live, but the pat, happy ending was a bit unsatisfying for me.