Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. Brilliance Audio, 2009. Copy provided by publisher.
The Plot: Lia's best friend, Cassie, is dead. Before she died, Cassie called Lia thirty-three times. Lia didn't answer; the two had stopped talking, stopped being friends. But they had never stopped being partners -- partners in the race to see who could be skinniest.
The Good: Anderson captures the tortured thoughts and worldview of Lia, who, to put it mildly, has serious problems. She starves herself; cuts herself; berates herself (stupid/ ugly/ stupid/ bitch/ stupid/ fat/ stupid/ baby/ stupid/ liar/ stupid/ lost); sees herself as fat; and sees ghosts. Sees Cassie. Everywhere. Haunting her; taunting her; encouraging her. In audio, especially, Cassie's words twist into your heart and your head.
Lia and Cassie, now seniors, have been friends since they were little. Anderson doesn't point to any one point where the two went from "normal" girls to girls who didn't eat or -- in Cassie's case -- eats and throws up. There are a couple of flashbacks (Cassie learning to throw up at drama camp, the girls vowing to be the "thinnest" in school because it was an obtainable goal) to individual moments that reflect when they start being sick, but no answers as to why. This is an immersion into Cassie's life and struggle, including her sickness, with the constant question being -- is this it? Is this the moment she dies? Or is this the moment she decides to live?
The narrator and production team does a great job of signalling not just other people's voices but also Cassie's own voice -- both the things she says and the things she doesn't say.
Lia meets a boy, Elijah. And guess what? Elijah is not a love interest. Thank you, thank you, thank you. He does provide a perspective outside of a family dynamic that is all twisted around Lia and her problems; it's a great balance when he, who has been beaten by his father, asks Lia, why she doesn't want to live with her mother. What has she done, he asks, imagining the worst. You can tell that her answers don't satisfy him. But the thing is, Lia's problems have no real answer.
There has been talk about whether Wintergirls could be not only a "handbook" for girls with eating problems, but also a trigger. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on eating disorders; reading this, I did begin thinking about the calories I was eating. But I was also repulsed by the damage described to Cassie's and Lia's bodies; reading of Lia's starvation made me hungry. Wintergirls obviously describes a girl who is mentally ill, living an unhealthy life that is not to be envied. And it's a mental illness -- not a choice. Someone suffering from it will find their guidebooks and handbooks, either in books, TV shows, magazines, or from their friends. They will find their encouragement in articles like this one, where the author almost boasts about anorexia. Wintergirls provides a realistic, sympathetic, and frightening look at a very real illness. As a YPulse contributor said, "Laurie Halse Anderson’s exquisite novel provides a better understanding of the disease and is sure to spark further, much needed discussions the true causes, societal pressures, consequences, and ways to help and prevent."
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy