Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)

This is a review of the ARC copy of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.

*** This review contains SPOILERS! ***
[IPDATED: 3/23/2009]

I shouldn’t. I can’t. I don’t deserve it. I’m a fat load and I disgust myself. I take up too much space already. I am an ugly, nasty hypocrite. I am trouble. I am a waste.
I want to go to sleep, but I don’t want to die. I want to eat like a normal person eats, but I need to see my bones or I will hate myself even more and I might cut out my heart or take every pill that was ever made (p 202-03).

Wintergirls rambles on like this most of the time. Readers are stuck in the first-person narrative mush that is Lia’s consciousness. The style itself is choppy; trying too hard (where the PR people got “lyrical and evocative prose” is a mystery to me). It dragged.

Lia is a senior and the skinniest girl in her high school. If you ask her, she would say she is thin-framed. She is actually anorexic. If you asked her about it, she would ask you why your eyes don’t work. She’d say she is clothed in fat.

The book begins with Lia’s childhood best friend, Cassie, found dead in a motel room. Lia’s hallucinations have her thinking Cassie is haunting her. We begin to understand why Lia is anorexic but by the time it is explained, I no longer care, because whatever the reason was… it’s no longer relevant.

That was the summer I finally grew, after years of being smaller than everyone. Puberty stretched me on the rack until me arms and legs popped out their sockets and my neck almost snapped. This new body smelled damp. The butt jiggled, the thighs looked a mile wide in tights, and a soft double chin bubbled up. My ballet teacher pinched the extra inches, took away my solo, and told me to stop eating maple-walnut ice cream. I went from being the elegant swan to the ugly duckling that couldn’t walk without tripping over her own feet (p 165).

Lia isn’t interested in boys (though I guessed she might be interested in girls and that played out) or ballet or sports. Just knitting and reading but those felt artificial to me.

This book has none of the subtleties of Speak. Lia name-drops so many different authors (Gaiman, Tolkien, Pierce, Yolen) that I’m not sure it’s Lia talking but rather the author.

I found the book tedious; too many adjectives (“If you catch an adjective, kill it.” Mark Twain).  And it didn’t add up. After speaking with a girl who had been anorexic for years, I was able to put my finger on it:

What rang true:

  • Lia’s obsession with the scale. It’s always about the number.
  • Lia’s enjoyment in cooking and watching others eat.
  • Cassie’s experience (though limited stage time) as a bulimic

What didn’t work:

  • Lia’s empty personality. She is her anorexia. And nothing more (Anorexia is usually a symptom of something else. In this case, Lia is a Peter Pan figure who can’t accept the changes adolescence brings.) She did nothing. And yet Cassie was extremely active. Lia was a poor choice for…
  • The Narrator. Her mind was mush. Her thoughts needlessly repetitive. She may read to escape but she obviously doesn’t glean any wisdom from her readings (yet Gaiman is brilliant?  To me, yes. But to a schizo-like Lia?).
  • Lia wonders why everyone’s eyes are broken (she’s obviously fat!) and yet she talks about exposing her skeleton… so does she is think she fat unless her insides are out?

Ms. Yingling Reads also commented on the language: “The poetic language seemed out of sorts with the topic, somehow.” Though her review overall was favorable.

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17 thoughts on “Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)

  1. Could you elaborate on “Lia doesn’t think like a reader”? I’m very interested in this idea (and I’ve read the book so I may have context for what you’re saying), but I can’t quite picture what you mean.

  2. Good question, Elizabeth. I was finishing the book as I was writing the blog post (and I did have to change some thoughts when the story so abruptly wrapped up on a *happy* note) and that sentence just popped out.

    Here’s what’s behind it. I was a veracious reader as a teen. Lia appears to enjoy many of the authors I enjoyed and yet, I couldn’t relate to Lia at all! Now, I’m not, nor ever was, anorexic yet I battled with my body image (I was a cutter) and finally got myself straightened out. But I couldn’t identify with Lia. Perhaps because I am an Aries, a fighter. Even though I went through periods when I HATED my body, I wanted it to be different because there were so many things I wanted to do and be.

    Lia seemed to be so far gone, her life was purposeless. What did she have to live for? How can someone who reads the works Lia apparently read, have no spark for the things those authors explored? Tamora Pierce writes confident strong leading women. How was her influence reflected in Lia? When Gaiman appeared on the Colbert Report just yesterday, he said the “moral” of his most recent masterpiece, The Graveyard Book, is that “life is worth living.” How did Lia come to this understanding (and she does in the final pages) after her plans to run away fell through so she chased it with 3 days overdosing on sleeping pills? Anderson just lost me as a reader and I became disinterested in Lia’s struggle. I found I wasn’t fighting for Lia in the final chapters.

  3. Huh, that’s fascinating. I more or less enjoyed reading Wintergirls (although that seems the wrong word for it, somehow; I found the book hard to get through, but I felt like I connected with it in some ways). But it’s true that Lia seems to have very little to live for, except, of course, for Emma. Which I thought was an interesting choice on Anderson’s part.

    I do feel like there may be a real, deep contradiction here for a lot of girls. Which is that there’s a romanticization of death and nihilism combined with a deep feeling of wanting to have a meaningful life. I sort of remember feeling that way myself.

    I don’t know if this is making any sense (I don’t know how to express this clearly, but I was shaken by reading that Boston study where all those young girls said Rihanna is to blame for being beaten, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it all in my head), but I feel like a lot of young girls today are in such a strange position. They’ve grown up with the legacy of their mothers’ women’s movement, believing that they can be and should be strong. But they’ve also grown up in an era of backlash, and of attacks, for most of them, on their families’ living standards and their own economic futures, but in a technical economic boom where they were “supposed” to believe they could do anything.

    What do they do with that? Some of them, I think, become depressed and nihilistic and have little, apparently, to live for, even at the same time as statements about the importance of human life, and of women, seem very meaningful and moving to them.

    I dunno. Feel free to tell me I’m grasping, here; that tends to happen. I did kind of share your sense that Anderson was name-dropping with the authors. At least, it was very noticeable.

  4. I admit I was initially confused about Lia’s regard for Emma. Lia seemed to find Emma’s eating grotesque (I believe she was eating potato chips and soda) but it later became clear that Lia loved Emma.

    So just exactly how does Lia feel about food? She bakes cookies for Emma’s bake sale but scoffs at the overweight women leaving crumbs on their shirts. She loves the smell of pizza and desperately wants to eat it but doesn’t think she deserves it. Her self-loathing/inferiority complex is oddly offset by the satisfaction she has in believing she is the skinniest girl in school/in the room. She is nihilistic; you aren’t reaching.

    I think it’s the long-winded manner (I thought the book could be shortened by half) in which we follow Lia’s thoughts that I found tedious. Indeed, Cassie’s influence was realistic; eating disorders are so often a group problem. And young women have a lot to deal with, I don’t deny this (I was appalled by that Boston study) but I enjoyed/related to Sweethearts by Sara Zarr much more than Wintergirls.

    I just didn’t see her love of literature reflected in any of her thoughts or actions. Those few sentences just seemed to pop out of nowhere.

    Regarding the women’s movement, girls are in a difficult spot. They have the opportunity to be strong, independent, and self-sufficient (and most men expect their partner/wife to earn some wages) but the social morays of marriage/the homemaker/child rearer/etc. are persistant and strong. So now, we are expected to work double time. Throw religion into the mix and I’m not surprised young women have warped perceptions of their roles in life.

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  6. Elizabeth, that’s so true.

    Nicki, those are interesting points. I haven’t read the book yet, but I really want to soon, and I’ll be thinking about a lot of what you said when I do. I’m also a reader and have gone through a lot of body issues, so Lia seems like someone I should, like you, ID with, but I’ll see, soon enough. Good review!

  7. I discuss reading with many people and I used to be shocked to hear when the ones who make “empty headed” conversation said they liked certain authors like Gaiman. But then I realized they are reading on a different level – they could discuss plot points and names of characters, but never themes, character motivations or anything under the surface.

    It’s been awhile since I read Wintergirls, but I got the impression that even if a normal Lia were capable of deep thought, a starved Lia wouldn’t have the energy to engage in more than basic thought – and I thought Anderson brought that across well.

  8. I think I have further identified my problem with this book… it’s so disgustingly teen. It’s just not a book for me. And unlike the greats by Gaiman and M.T. Anderson, it never takes me out of teen.

  9. See, but now I’m interested, Nicki, in what you mean by “disgustingly teen.” I will never, ever argue with anyone praising M.T. Anderson (and I’m fully ashamed to admit I’ve never read Gaiman!), and I do think of OCTAVIAN NOTHING as the best fiction for any age I’ve read in years, but I guess I don’t think of it as “taking me out of teen.” Although it’s true that the feelings I associate with it aren’t sort of inherently teenage the way that, say, Sarah Dessen novels (which I also love) are. Anyway, could you elaborate?

  10. It felt manufactured for teens. I wasn’t surprised to find this book came about as a result of girls writing to Anderson about their struggles with eating disorders, cutting, etc. There are books that explore complex issues with subtlety and grace and then there are abrasive, in your face books. Wintergirls is the later.

    Think of a children’s movie, say WallE, that is clearly for children yet there is a subtext for adults. Wintergirls falls squarely in the teen category. Are there messages there for the teens? Yes. But for me, the writing, the narrative and narrator, never rise above its intended audience… so it’s okay, but not great. It just feeds that teen machine.

    Partly, this is like backlash from all the kidlit bloggers who praise every and all works of YA fiction in some crazy attempt to legitimize the genre. It’s not all great! Most of it is down right mediocre and some should have never seen the light of day. And yet, some is exceptional. This kind of book feels like the equivalent of an adult romance novel. feeding the need. I’m sorry to be so harsh! ^_^

    That’s the best I can offer. This was a book that didn’t do it for me. It’s not that I disagree; eating disorders are a serious issue and should be talked about. But as a work of fiction, Wintergirls was less than I had hoped for from Anderson.

  11. Okay, I think I understand better what you mean.

    For me, Wintergirls vacillated between spot-on details that I associate with Anderson’s books in general, and bits that felt like “this is what you’re supposed to think having an eating disorder feels like.” I haven’t had an eating disorder, so I may just be in a poor position to assess this, but that was my problem with the ongoing refrain of insults that Anderson includes (that I blogged about finding really didn’t work for me) — it rang false, which made it feel almost melodramatic.

    At other times, though, I thought Anderson did succeed in capturing some detail of what depression feels like, in a way that really struck a chord with me. So I’m less negative overall about the book than you are.

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  14. This is really long, but I feel like I 1) need to give some input as someone who has had anorexia, and has struggled with eating disorders, and 2) can explain how that feels and perhaps thus why the narrative was as it was.

    I think you guys are forgetting that the narrative is coming from a girl who is starved. A girl who doesn’t eat. Someone who cannot think because she has literally starved her brain away. I’ve struggled with eating disorders for years, and I got Lia’s thought patterns and “empty logic” quite well. When you aren’t eating, when there’s nothing fueling you, your frontal lobes start to disappear. Thought becomes none existence. The intelligence that is there is still there…but it’s spaced out. I had “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” with me at treatment this past time all 90 days. I got so incredibly frustrated by my lack of ability to comprehend. Slowly, however, when I began to feed my body and brain again and became a whole person again, I was able to begin to understand and appreciate. I’ve always loved literature and philosophy, but by the standards you’re talking, I would have been considered empty and insulting, too, when I was really sick. (I had to take medical leave from college- as a English major- for it!)

    A starved brain is empty. It’s like what people say and what you read echoes then gets blocked, like you can’t quite fully connect with it. Or with anyone else. Everything is dulled and nothing really matters quite as much. And it takes a long time for that to go away. You didn’t develop your eating disorder in a simple way, or in a few hours of treatment. It’s not going to be healed and transform you into a whole, realgirl again that quickly, either. It takes years of lapsing, re-lapsing (me right now!), learning, and discovering.
    I really do believe that Halse Anderson was trying to convey that in this novel- people just don’t understand how complex anorexia is enough to get that. “Being the anorexia” is often how people feel- not every anorexic or eating disordered person is active and hides their ED, pushes it all away, has hobbies and is great at school, “oh I never would have guessed this would happen to her!”, etc.
    Sometimes feeling empty and depressed is too much to let anything else into one’s life. Lia is an example of just that.

  15. Effy, I had an interesting and alarming conversation with my brother-in-law over the holidays. He informed me that one of the secretaries in his office (she is in her late 20s and dating) has been suffering from anorexia for the past 9 months. It has become so severe that clients (she is in admissions at a college) have commented to him, “Is this really someone you want representing your college?”

    He is unsure how to proceed. The woman is so obviously starved that everyone knows what is happening but no one has done anything about it.

    If someone is intentionally starving themselves (Are we the only animal that does this? I believe so!), what responsibility does society have to that person? After all, they cannot make decisions for themselves if their brains are starving away.

    So how does society treat eating disorders? Sadly, I believe they are ignored or even encouraged (aren’t the skinny girls dating and having fun?). Does someone have to pass out before they are forced into treatment? How bad does it have to get and are they shoved out the door the minute they are ‘healthy’ only to become unwell again?

    While I believe Anderson accurately depicted the mind of a severely anorexic girl, I don’t believe the book transcended the genre in the way Chains or Speak did (two of Anderson’s other teen novels). As a work of literature, I found it satisfactory but not superb… and I’ve come to expect superb from Anderson, so it’s partly my own expectations that have dictated my thoughts on this book.

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