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The Girls at 17 Swann Street

Review

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

In the United States, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder. If this number does not shock you, you might still be surprised to learn that eating disorders, often incorrectly thought to only affect teens and young women, are also present in 13% of women over 50, and that many eating disorder patients are actually diagnosed in their early 20s.

In THE GIRLS AT 17 SWANN STREET, Yara Zgheib offers readers a heartbreaking and lyrical look at one such young woman, whose diagnosis and subsequent treatment for anorexia force her to confront her innermost thoughts and pain.

The story begins with 26-year-old Anna Roux entering a treatment facility located at 17 Swann Street. Beleaguered by depression, anxiety and her own toxic thoughts, Anna weighs a mere 88 pounds, but she is not the victim many readers will expect to find in this situation. She is happily married to the love of her life, has a passion and talent for dance, and is an eloquent thinker. As Anna enters 17 Swann Street, we watch as she is stripped of her possessions and her rights, and confronted with the truth of the matter: she must eat, attend therapy and break herself of her disordered thoughts, or be forced to face a feeding tube or, worse, death.

"Zgheib writes with a compassion and an intensity that may scare away some readers, but I believe that her brilliance and authenticity make this book a must-read."

Through a mixture of intake forms, meal plans, treatment notes, flashbacks to Anna’s life before her diagnosis, and her present-day interactions with the other seven girls at 17 Swann Street, Zgheib takes readers on a character-driven race through mental illness, treatment and healing. Early on, we see that the girls Anna is now living with are all dramatically different --- the anorexics are gaunt and sunken in, but the bulimics have the same puffy cheeks. The one glaring similarity among the girls, beyond their residence, is the adolescent anguish in their eyes. They are strung between their childlike bodies and their very adult pain, and the tension threatens to swallow them whole.

As Anna adapts to life at 17 Swann Street, enduring brutal therapy and feeding sessions along with painful yet hopeful visits from her husband, we learn all about her past --- her home, Paris; her dedication to her career as a professional ballet dancer; the ex-boyfriend who toyed with her self-esteem; her doting husband, Matthias; and finally, her injured leg that has prevented her from dancing. It would be easy to see how any of these elements (except, perhaps, Matthias) could combine with Anna’s own mental anguish to result in disordered eating, but Zgheib does not take the easy route, showing how the minute pains of Anna’s life are the ones that have hurt her the most, and how she finds control through her food intake. As Anna explains, “I do not suffer from anorexia. I have anorexia. The two states are not the same. I know my anorexia, I understand it better than the world around me.”

Because this novel is intensely character-driven, it would be a disservice not to discuss Zgheib’s careful, tender rendering of Anna. Although she is only 26, Anna explains that she feels 62, and though she is often in despair, she has a keen mind that seems to possess the wisdom of someone who has experienced far more than their share of life’s troubles. At the same time, she loves and is loved, yet it is clear that the love of her husband and father will not be enough to help her recover. As cheesy as it may sound, Anna truly must learn to love herself before she can begin to heal, but, unlike me, Zgheib relies on no clichéd phrases or plot tropes like this.

Through Anna’s sharp eyes, we meet the other girls, too, like sweet Valerie and bright yet tortured Emm. We learn not only their diagnoses, but also their complicated and distorted relationships with food, hidden anxieties, self-destructive impulses, need to be loved and so much more. Emm was a highlight of the book for me. Unlike the other girls, she has been at 17 Swann Street for four years and thus has the role of leader, despite her obvious struggles with the outside world. I cannot stress enough what a beautiful job Zgheib does in illuminating the girls’ differences while still reminding readers that people of all backgrounds can end up in the same place, with the same diagnosis. Even among the girls themselves, there is a strong sense of community --- despite their own sufferings, they all have privately vowed to “never leave anyone alone at the table.” At the same time, they remind Anna of all she has to lose outside, and why she is one of the luckier patients there. Their shared stories are deeply personal yet wonderfully universal, and Zgheib somehow manages both at once with an air that suggests she was born to write this book.

I cannot end this review without stating how painful it can be to read THE GIRLS AT 17 SWANN STREET. The scenes where the girls are forced to eat can be triggering, and there are several mentions of suicide, self-harm and other troubling topics. Even in Anna’s flashbacks, we are confronted with horrifying scenes, like Anna screaming and crying on a roller coaster because the wind feels like it is cutting through her paper-thin skin, and the force feels as though it may remove her arms from their sockets. Zgheib writes with a compassion and an intensity that may scare away some readers, but I believe that her brilliance and authenticity make this book a must-read.

Zgheib shows us how easy it can be for these disorders to sneak by for many years, only being diagnosed when they become nearly fatal, and how much each disorder takes from its victims and their loved ones. This is not a happy story, but it is a hopeful one, and perhaps the perfect book for anyone feeling alone, depressed or like they have truly lost control.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 8, 2019

The Girls at 17 Swann Street
by Yara Zgheib

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250202442
  • ISBN-13: 9781250202444