Now that my town is acting like winter is done (though considering that I live in Wisconsin, I mostly think it’s trying to fake me out), here are some thoughts about Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS, about a severely anorexic high school girl whose best friend has just died.
[All quotes are from an Advance Reader's Copy, which means they may be different in the final version you get from a bookstore or library.]
Things I noticed:
- I found the subjective experience of reading WINTERGIRLS to be quite odd, because of how strongly I felt my loyalties divided. Lia, the protagonist, goes to great lengths to hide her anorexia from those in authority who could make her eat — especially, her dad and stepmom — and at times is quite clever about it. I have a very strong identification with anyone cleverly trying to get away with things; it’s probably part of the juvenile mindset that keeps me reading young adult fiction even as I age ever farther past its target audience.
So I kept rooting for Lia to keep on getting away with all her schemes; the schemes, in fact, may have been the main thing I identified with in her. But then, of course, I as a reader would step out of this identification, and be aware of how getting caught might be the only thing that would save her life. This dual awareness, in and out of her head, is always a strange experience for me, much like when I find myself rooting for a novel’s villain because they just seem more interesting than the hero.
- Anderson continues to excel at expressing the alienation of being a high school student. She has a cynical take on school that I love reading, and I expect those who are still stuck in high school love more. Here’s a representative quote:
My English teacher flips out because the government is demanding we take yet another test to assess our reading skills, because we’re seniors and pretty soon we might have to read or something.
What I think is interesting in this and similar quotes (and I totally thought I had a better example, except now I can’t find it) is that Anderson’s expression of high school angst often involves adopting a seemingly adult POV, commenting on the situation of the kids. This, on its face, is violating a convention of fiction for young readers, except that I also totally remember thinking like that (and feeling very adult doing it) as a teenager.
Things I liked:
- Anderson does something I didn’t expect, but loved, when she has a groping-toward-recovery Lia imagine her future:
I’m angry that I starved my brain and that I sat shivering in my bed at night instead of dancing or reading poetry or eating ice cream or kissing a boy or maybe a girl with gentle lips and strong hands.
It would have meant so much to me to read something like this when I was in high school, announcing the possibility of life with women or with men with just as little fanfare as Anderson gives here, but I never, ever did.
- Meanwhile, she managed to avoid what the blogger Amee calls “Sarah Dessen Syndrome” with her character Elijah, just when I thought she was going to succumb to it.
- Anderson also uses her sense of irony well in one of the book’s “stylistic quirks,” the repeated use of strikethrough text to convey both Lia’s initial reaction and her rejection of it:
No, I am never setting foot in this house again it scares me and makes me feel sad and I wish you could be a mom whose eyes worked but I don’t think you can.“Sure.”
At some of these times, I viscerally identified with Lia. Like in TWISTED, Anderson does depressed well.
Things I didn’t like:
- The thing is, depressed is not always that much fun to read. I spent more days reading this almost-300 page book than I did Libba Bray’s almost-800 page THE SWEET FAR THING later that week, even though I think WINTERGIRLS was better.
- There were also times that I didn’t feel like I could really get in Lia’s head at all. Nicki at the blog Dog Ear made some interesting criticisms about Lia supposedly being a reader, but not thinking like one. I liked the book more than Nicki did, but it’s true that Lia has virtually no interests — that’s part of the point — and that makes it harder to care about what happens to her. I’m not sure how else you can convey a character as depressed as this, but maybe that’s just another reason why depression is not necessarily my favorite thing to read about. Maybe I identified with Lia the most when she was most destructively hiding her illness because that’s the only time she ever did anything active.
- Also, some of Anderson’s “stylistic quirks” meant to convey Lia’s mental state didn’t work so well for me. In particular, Anderson repeats this refrain, set off in the text to indicate Lia’s thoughts:
I like the idea of Lia having a self-loathing refrain — it fits the kind of obsessiveness I think we needed to see from her — but the text didn’t really work to convey it for me. It was moments like this where I agreed with Nicki that it felt like we were being continually told about Lia’s messed-up mind rather than really feeling it. It’s also possible that this just isn’t my style of book; I tend to like my narratives literal.
Overall, I think WINTERGIRLS is quite an achievement. Anderson is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and there’s stuff in here I think she did incredibly well; it made me think a lot. (Insert your own joke about how that really is an achievement here.) But I can’t quite imagine picking this one up to read again, like I can virtually all her other young adult books. Almost a week after I finished reading it, I don’t feel like it’s stuck in my soul the way some of her other books are, months or years after being read. Ultimately, I think I just don’t love Lia enough. I wish her the best, but that’s all.