If your definition of a great read is one that takes you places you've never been or causes you to have an unusual vicarious experience, then you'd agree that Wintergirls is great fiction. The "place" author Laurie Halse Anderson takes us is not an exotic setting in a distant world, but instead deep into the mind of young Lia, who suffers from an eating disorder. Lia's first-person narration is so authentic it's hard to believe it's fiction and not an actual memoir.
Eighteen-year old Lia's voice is often beautiful in its raw honesty, but more often disturbing and frightening. Her negative self-talk caused me great anguish, as it reminded me of the pressure many girls feel to be thin. To be perfect. A female reader might even recognize herself to some degree. I did, as I recalled my teen years and the jeans I needed to fit into, the prom dress, the bathing suit in yet a smaller size. "Haunting" is another word that comes to mind. Lia's voice and thoughts stayed with me long after I finished the book.
Not only do we know what she is thinking but we are privy to her own edits of her thoughts. This is achieved through an effective narrative technique of drawing a line through the thoughts she doesn't want to have. Several other narrative techniques are employed throughout the book, some lending a lyrical quality, others creating suspense and tension. The repetition of the number "thirty-three" rings like a death knell, a constant reminder of Lia's remorse and guilt. Thirty-three calls from Cassie. Thirty-three calls ignored by Lia. Could she have saved her friend's life? Does Lia deserve to live?
These are the questions Lia struggles to answer in the days following Cassie's death. Lia experiences further stress when the dead Cassie keeps appearing to her with chilling conversations, often encouraging her to join her in the frozen state of death. "You're ugly, you're stupid, you're boring. The only thing you're good at is starving... that's why I love you... Hurry up, okay?"
I was shocked at the scheming an anorexic girl must do to lead her dual life - one that is a constant lie. She cannot risk her parents knowing the truth: that she is still trying to be thinner. This discovery would lead to a return visit to New Seasons, where "they locked me up and poured sugar-water into my empty veins." Under her parent's careful scrutiny, Lia makes every effort to convince them she is now taking care of herself, eating the right amount of calories, "I pour too much cereal (150), splash on the two-percent milk (125). Breakfast is the mostimportnatmealoftheday. Breakfast will make me a cham-pee-on." When she can get away with it, she pours most of the soggy mess down the drain. Her breakfast of choice would be ten raisins (16) five almonds (35) and a green-bellied pear (121) =172 calories.
Part of her daily charade is to attend her high school classes. Be a good girl, be a nice girl. When in fact, she is doing everything possible to get thinner with hopes that soon she will be thin enough to eventually disappear and join Cassie. Although Lia is constantly freezing, she refuses to consume enough calories to fuel her body, yearning instead to see the numbers on the scale drop lower each day.
Through flashbacks we see glimpses of the normal girl Lia once was, making her present-day life even more heart-wrenching. We see how her friendship with Cassie bloomed, how they went from normal little girls to wintergirls, always cold in their thin bodies. We see how their friendship faltered and how it fell apart. And we see how no family is immune to eating disorders. They can occur in children of good parents - even pillars of the community, teachers, professors, doctors, principals, as is the case in this story.
The secondary characters, her dad, mom, step-mom and half-sister Emma, are equally believable and each one plays a significant role in Lia's behavior and choices. Lia's love for chubby 9-year-old Emma gives us the best hope for her recovery, but we fear it will not be enough to outweigh the demons in her mind. We feel the family's anguish as they struggle to understand Lia, to help her. I especially sympathized with the step-mom, Jennifer, who is given the worst task of all: recording Lia's weight each morning. Silently dubbed "the scale Nazi," Jennifer is unaware of the quarters Lia has sewn into her yellow bathrobe pockets.
Wintergirls should be required reading for all teen girls, their parents, educators, or anyone who is concerned about someone in their life being obsessed with their weight and the desire to be thin at any cost. It would make an excellent discussion book for teen reading groups and mother-daughter book clubs. Lia and Cassie's story opens the door to discussions of issues all teens struggle with: finding their identity, belonging and making wise choices.
School Library Journal published an extensive Q&A with Laurie Halse Anderson in their June 2009 issue. At the time of writing it is available to all visitors.
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the March 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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