Laurie Halse Anderson - author of the stunningly brilliant SPEAK - has a new book out, a new YA called WINTERGIRLS.
Like everyone else, I loved SPEAK - I thought it was incredibly honest and real and truthful. It resonated with me on a number of levels personally, and as a student of children's and YA literature, it absolutely rocked my world. Anderson's narrator in SPEAK, Melinda, is one of the best YA narrators I've ever encountered. Teaching the novel last fall to undergrads, I was amazed at how they all - ALL - responded so positively to the book. I was struck especially by the way a couple of the boys in my class felt connection with Melinda; I had been a bit anxious that it would read too much like a "girl" book (not just because Melinda is female, but because she is dealing with rape, self-esteem that links to sexuality and appearance, and the nasty world of teenage girl social relations). But somehow SPEAK managed to, well, speak to virtually everyone in the class, regardless of their own personal circumstances.
Naturally, after reading SPEAK, I scurried after Anderson's other books. I've read them all, I think, except the relatively recent CHAINS - and I've found them disappointing. The emotional depth, the cleverness of the prose, the stylistic tricks, the personality of the narrator - Anderson has not been able to come near her success in any of these areas since SPEAK.
Until WINTERGIRLS, which I read this weekend. I still maintain SPEAK as a better novel - because really, it's superb, virtually flawless - but Wintergirls comes very close to reaching the bar set by SPEAK.
Going into it, I was a bit anxious; Wintergirls is the story of two girls, late teenagers, who both struggle with eating disorders. Lia, the narrator, is anorexic; Cassie, her closest friend since childhood, is bulimic. Both girls dabble in drinking or drugs; Lia (if not Cassie) also cuts. The novel begins with news of Cassie's death, alone in a motel room. Lia is home from a recent stint at a recovery facility (but not at all recovered, and in fact secretly determined to drop down from 104lbs to 85lbs or less).
On the face of it, this seems like a standard teen-girl problem novel, but because Anderson is in top form, she's able to nail the psychology, the inner life, of her anorexic, unhappy protagonist. Lia's hazy world is our own world, and while as readers it is clear that Lia is severely troubled and impaired by her disorder, we are also pulled into a kind of understanding; we see Lia's world as Lia sees it, and this makes her behaviors more understandable (although not less frightening). Lia is haunted by Cassie - literally, sort of - and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that Cassie's "ghost" and Lia are locked into a battle of sorts, a battle that played out in their real lives prior to Cassie's death in a much less obvious, much less clearly dangerous, way. But the stakes are enormous now - literally, life and death - for Lia as she tries to negotiate her way in a world that is out of her control and unpleasant. Her feelings of responsibility for Cassie's death dominate much of her emotional world; on the night she died, Cassie left 33 voicemessages on Lia's phone, messages Lia did not get until after news of the death.
Lia is a broken narrator. She is manipulative of her family and her therapist, though in ways she understands as self-protective. She knows the correct lines to say at the right moments to assuage parental anxiety. She has endless tricks to deceive - sewing quarters into the hem of the robe in which she has her weekly weigh-in, for instance. She is unstable, haunted, distressed and disturbed - but this doesn't make her any less likeable.
But the book isn't about Lia's personality, necessarily. She isn't a helpless victim (as Melinda is, in some ways). Lia is unwell, and her obsessive control of her eating is in fact symptomatic of how wildly out of control she is. The book is really the story - the intense, emotional story - of a horrific battle between Lia and herself. Outside forces work on and against and for her, but ultimately, this is Lia against herself. The book doesn't shrink away from the horrific nature of that kind of internal, psychological battle, nor does it shrink away from describing some of the most frightening symptoms and results of severely disordered food behaviors. This is a story that takes place in the borderlands, where Lia herself says she exists - between worlds, between existences - and the content of the book is movement through those borderlands.
As someone who is deeply invested in food/eating disorders (both behaviors and thought patterns), and as someone who is also invested in representations of mental health (in fiction and in the real world), I found this book thoroughly disturbing. Anderson gets the desperate panic of disordered thinking down perfectly - the deceptions, the continuous, obsessive numbers attached with every bite or drink Lia takes. Numbers mark the book everywhere, as do textually different interior monologues, Lia's loop of self-loathing and directives to resist/refuse/deny/restrict. Anderson plays some clever tricks with language and typesetting to achieve the psychological effects she's aiming for. The result, I think, is a really amazing representation of emotional/eating disordered life.
A note of caution: I would not give this book to girls - or anyone - currently living with a food-related disorder; the numbers, the repeated negative self-talk, are likely to be triggers, consciously or unconsciously. As a person who has had some problems in the past myself, it was hard to look at those lists of food and their associated calories and not feel anxious, or triggered myself.
But for anyone else looking for a gripping, emotionally challenging story, WINTERGIRLS delivers and then some. It's a delight to me to know that Laurie Anderson is more than a one-hit wonder; though nothing will likely top SPEAK, which is truly her masterpiece, WINTERGIRLS hits the same kinds of emotional and literary highs.