Lia’s estranged best friend Cassie is found dead in a motel room. What Lia hasn’t told anyone is that Cassie called her 33 times the evening she died; Lia didn’t answer the phone. She also hasn’t mentioned that she and Cassie once made a pact to see who could become the skinniest. At 99 pounds Lia is winning.
This isn’t the first time Lia has been so thin. At 93 pounds she passed out while driving and hit the car in front of her. Cassie was in the vehicle that day. No one was killed, but Lia was put into the New Seasons treatment center, or prison, as she would say:
“Four weeks later, the gates opened. Mom Dr. Marrigan drove me home to her house and we pretended none of it had ever happened, except for the meal plan and the rules and the appointments and the scales and the hurricane of my mother’s disapproval.
Cassie understood. She listened to everything that happened and she told me I was brave….”
Lia’s mother isn’t the only one pretending nothing has happened. Her parents are recently divorced. Her father is married to one of the women with whom he had affairs. Her mother, a busy heart surgeon, never seems to have any time for Lia and her imperfections. But all of them like to pretend that nothing --- including Lia --- has changed. Lia goes to live with her father where she can more easily indulge in her anorexic behaviors.
Laurie Halse Anderson uses strikethroughs and ellipses to show what thoughts Lia is omitting, resisting or rewriting. But the narrative style tightens as the stakes increase. Cassie’s ghost returns to haunt Lia and seems to be luring her back to the hotel. Lia meets the strange boy who found Cassie’s body. Even as she fights to make her body thinner and her will stronger, Lia can’t keep pretending that nothing has changed. She must make a choice between the exquisite control her anorexia demands and the sustenance she requires to live.
Anderson is best known for her popular young adult novels about teen issues. Her first book, SPEAK, is about a girl who has stopped talking after a traumatic event. CATALYST is about a perfectionist who must cope when the life she obsessively worked for doesn’t materialize. TWISTED, her only novel with a male narrator, is about depression. It’s not surprising that she would write a book about eating disorders. The question is why she didn’t do it sooner.
Perhaps it’s because eating disorders is a difficult and controversial subject to write about for young people. One of the problems parents and educators often have about literature dealing with this topic is that that they are afraid it will teach readers how to engage in unhealthy behaviors. WINTERGIRLS has plenty of descriptions about Lia’s tactics to escape detection. It also acknowledges the role online communities play in supporting disorders. There are shocking descriptions of the impact of eating disorders on the body. Anderson doesn’t shy away from the deterioration of Lia’s body, or descriptions of what caused Cassie’s death.
Anderson includes two epigrams at the beginning of the book. One is from the myth of Persephone, who is abducted by Hades and must remain in the land of the dead for part of the year after she eats several seeds of a pomegranate. The other is about Sleeping Beauty, who reaches adolescence and falls into a great, deep slumber, surrounded by a hedge of roses. Symbolism relating to pomegranates and roses abounds in this book, and clearly Anderson has taken the themes of both these stories as guides.
To a certain extent, all stories about adolescents are stories of transformation. It is a point of radical physical, emotional and developmental changes in every human’s life. It’s a process that can be quite painful at times, and there is often an impulse to descend into hibernation. Not just a physical need for sleep, but a desire to put the whole, irresistible, irreversible process on hold.
Lia has put herself in a state of hibernation; she is refusing not just food, but the growth it will enact on her body. Cassie’s ghost offers a seductive alternative to the world of adults. She offers perfection in the form of stasis: a girl forever frozen in the memory of her peers, someone who will never grow older, or fatter, or change in any way. Lia must eat or be trapped forever. As she struggles to emerge from her underworld journey, WINTERGIRLS reaches its moment of transformation.
One of the things I think is often missed in stories about sleep or the underworld is that, until we actually go to our final rest, they are not just about descent. They are also about the return. Hades has no hold on the living. As long as Persephone lives, she returns. Sleeping Princesses wake. The point isn't their violation, their descent or their sleep. The point is their return at the end of the story, as radiant and inevitable as spring.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on February 23, 2010