One of the other books that gave me this feeling was another Laurie Halse Anderson novel, Speak. Both of these books ripped me up inside. They hurt almost physically. They’re visceral and unpleasant and eye-opening. In a lot of ways, I hated reading them. At the same time, though, I’m so impressed by the strength of the sensations that Anderson can elicit in her fiction and I know that this intense discomfort I’m feeling is something she’s created and that she’s teaching me and expanding my understanding.
Laurie Halse Anderson is, without a doubt, one of my favorite authors, even if I did somewhat hate the experience of reading two of her books. I’ve read four and each one had such a unique narrative voice. Some authors have essentially the same sort of characters over and over, but, for all that Anderson’s MCs (at least in the ones I’ve read) are white females, they’re quite disparate. The first person perspective of Lia in Wintergirls particularly stands out. The narrative is frenetic, jumbled, nonsensical, messy, and rambling. It takes some time to adjust to, but, once you get there, the writing is such a beautiful chaos of pain, loneliness and little bits of hope.
Going into it, I thought Wintergirls was a novel about a girl with an eating disorder, which it is, but it’s also much more than that. Lia’s mental problems extend further than anorexia, which is a symptom of larger issues. What’s fascinating and intensely painful is the odd mixture of self-awareness and complete lack of self-knowledge Lia’s mental processes exhibit. She knows that she’s in a danger zone weight wise, that she’s hurt people before because of her poor nutrition, and that she craves food, but at the same time she still truly believes herself to be disgusting and fat even as she stares at her protruding ribs. Being in her head is, I repeat, intensely unsettling and eye-opening.
At the novel’s start, Lia has been released from treatment for the second time. She’s living with her father and stepmother, having finally escaped from her Mom Dr. Marrigan. Immediately her goal is to slough off all the weight she was forced to gain in order to get out of the hospital. The death of her best friend, Cassie, accelerates this unhealthy backslide. Cassie and Lia both had eating disorders and encouraged one another in their behavior. Honestly, I’m not really sure what to make of the relationship between Cassie and Lia, except the way that friendship can actually be really unhealthy for you no matter how much you love each other, much like a romantic relationship can be.
Because Laurie Halse Anderson doesn’t write garden variety YA, Wintergirls isn’t about romance. Lia isn’t fixed by the love of a hot boy. The only one who can fix Lia is Lia, even though her parents and her psychologist are trying to help her as much as they can. Though I feel like the parents were a bit unobservant, they were trying, which automatically qualifies them for a good parenting award in YA fiction.
The Final Verdict:
I don’t even know what to say about this book, other than that it hurt my brain and that you should read it, if only to admire how talented Laurie Halse Anderson is. This goes on the list of books I’ll need to reread at least once and maybe multiple times to really fathom.