Review of Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This was a difficult book to read, and not just because of its subject matter. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is highly stylized in Wintergirls; I mistook the cover copy’s description of her writing as “lyrical” as being metaphorical, but it’s more accurate than not. Normally I dislike gimmicky or unconventional experiments in narrative style, even when they attempt to bring verisimilitude to a narrator’s stream of consciousness. For some reason, though, it seized me here and didn’t let me go. I guess it effectively communicates the state of Lia’s mind, and while such tricks haven’t worked for me in the past, it works here in tandem with Anderson’s careful characterization and the duplicity that Lia presents to the outside world.
Trigger warning (both book and review) for discussions of eating disorders, suicide/death.
By way of disclaimer, I know next to nothing about anorexia or other eating disorders. I haven’t even read much about them. The most I can remember reading about eating disorders was probably in Unspeakable Things, wherein Laurie Penny talks about the way medical professionals “treating” her eating disorder also coerced her into performing their vision of a feminine gender role. There are salient points there. While people who perform gender as male also suffer from eating disorders, disproportionately women in our society receive the messages telling them to be skinny. Anderson takes aim at this idea, but instead of confronting it head-on, she presents it from within. Lia acknowledges the paradox of her thinking, admits that if she hits her goal of 90 lbs she’s only going to press on to 85, then to 80, then to 75—the “danger zone”—and that nothing except “0” will ever ultimately satisfy her. This is irrational. How can this possibly end in anything except her death? I find myself thinking. How is this anything but the slowest form of suicide? But it’s so much more complex than that. This is a complicated subject, because like anything dealing with human behaviour, biology, and neurology, there are a host of physical, mental, and social factors at play here. Wintergirls takes a look at almost all of them. And I think Anderson does an amazing job of helping someone like me, who has no real frame of reference, understand even slightly better what people like Lia experience on a day-to-day basis.
When we meet Lia, she is in crisis. She has been in crisis for years now. But her crisis has recently deepened with the death of her former best friend, Cassie. Lia’s family knows all about her anorexia; she has previously been hospitalized and is presently seeing a therapist. And she is playing the game, pretending to eat and cheating at her weekly weigh-ins with her stepmom, all to keep them off her back while she monitors her calories and continues to lose weight. Her self-control, though certainly not laudable in this context, is indubitably impressive. Herein lies one of the edifying tidbits of Wintergirls: it’s not that Lia doesn’t crave the food; she is so, so hungry. But if she eats, she gains weight, and it is her embodiment that she cannot tolerate. I can empathize with this to some extent: I too occasionally find embodiment problematic. We are disgusting bags of fat and water and calcified minerals. We’re gross. So I can imagine taking my occasional distaste for the human body and turning that up to eleven and not being able to turn that off, and maybe that approximates what Lia feels when she looks at herself in the mirror. When she describes her objectively skinny body as being bloated and gruesomely blubbery.
The depths to which Lia goes to dissemble about her disorder are fascinating. It’s an inverted look at what’s happening behind the “there were no warning signs” attitude some people profess upon discovering that a loved one was depressed, had an eating disorder, etc. The warning signs are manifest and plain to see, but the human capacity for self-deception makes it easy for Lia’s family to ignore them. It’s not that they don’t care. Anderson gives us a wonderful, likeable-but-flawed stepmother character in the form of Jennifer, who seems to want what’s best for Lia. She genuinely tries to engage with Lia. Yet the ease with which Lia deflects Jennifer’s attempts, and the attempts of the other family members and adults in her life, demonstrates just how little we penetrate the interior lives of those around us.
It’s also important that Lia here is eighteen, legally an adult, theoretically capable and allowed to make her own choices. In this way, Wintergirls can explore questions of autonomy and individuality that stories focusing on pre-teens and early teens with eating disorders cannot. To what extent should we allow an individual to self-harm before we abrogate their self-determination? This is such a thorny question. It’s one that has weighed heavily in our Canadian conversation lately, because just this past week the government finally passed into law rules governing assisted dying. Western society prides itself on a strong tradition of individualism to the point, perhaps, of irrationality: people should be able to do whatever they want to themselves as long as it doesn’t hurt others, per Mills. Yet we also prescribe many anti-individualist and hegemonic practices and are willing to use any number of positive and negative coercive methods to ensure these practices are followed. In the book, Lia’s autonomy is legally valid but precarious: as long as she lives under her parents’ roofs (either one) she must submit, in some form, to their rules; her mother also makes ominous threats about having Lia declared unfit by a judge.
We cannot ignore the fact that these are conversations about the autonomy women have over their bodies and the historical context thereof. It is so weird and unforgivable that we live in an era that prides itself on individual freedoms yet simultaneously seeks to legislate what women can and cannot do with their bodies. Wintergirls engages with the social pressures inherent in Lia’s anorexia in subtle ways. Mostly, Anderson does this through Cassie and her juxtaposition with Lia—both as a spectre of what her future might hold, as well as a literal spectre goading Lia towards that future.
The subplot concerning Cassie is exceptionally well done and one of the best parts this book has to offer. It reminds me of the way Courtney Summers juxtaposes Romy’s situation with Penny’s in All the Rage: tragically, in our society, dead girls are often easier to deal with than living ones. We can memorialize dead girls, mythologize them, smooth over their checkered pasts and turn them into the impossible angels they could never have been when they were alive. Cassie is so similar to Lia in terms of the issues that plague her, yet now that she is dead, her parents seek only to remember her as a “good girl” taken from them too soon.
Lia remarks on the twisted irony of this behaviour, and rightly so. I get why parents want to do this. But this kind of narrative is so harmful to the living. It erases Cassie, turns her into something she never was, because no one is perfect and everyone has problems, perhaps teenagers more so than most. Denying this simply to remember “the best of” a person dishonours that person’s memory by refusing to remember them as a person. This is doubly perfidious for women whose personhoods are so often challenged not just in death but in life as well. In particular, the idea that girls, dead or alive, are either “good” or “bad” is reductive, insulting, and dangerous. There is so much pressure to be a “good girl”, and so why are we surprised when girls take extreme steps to attempt to carve themselves into the images of good girls thrust upon them? Lia and Cassie’s pact to be the skinniest, best, most glittering wintergirls their school has ever seen is not some idle decision; it’s an oath they take because they think it will help them survive the gauntlet of judgement, double standard, and impossible expectations that teenage girls must run from puberty through adulthood.
I love how Anderson shows us the seeds of such moments in Emma. Lia observes with distaste the way Jennifer regulates Emma’s life: “Jennifer is determined to carve her into the perfect-little-girl who will turn into the perfect-young-lady whose shining accomplishments will prove to the world that Jennifer is the absolutely perfect mother” and how this includes attempting to watch Emma’s “plumpness”. Now, it’s worth pointing out that Lia is obviously an unreliable narrator. Her relationship with her own mother is so very different from Emma’s relationship with Jennifer; Dr. Marrigan is much colder and more distant, and it’s possible Lia is projecting some of her own longing for a maternal connection onto what’s happening between Jennifer and Emma. Nevertheless, I think this is an interesting dynamic. As I mentioned earlier, Jennifer is a likeable, if somewhat high-strung, character: she has the best of intentions in mind and wants the best for her daughter, yet she is complicit in a system of socialization designed to make women self-conscious about their bodies.
The scenes between Lia and Emma are also moments of endearing tenderness. Lia intentionally distances herself from everyone, because if she allows herself to get close, her careful facade will crack. Yet she is so sweet and caring with Emma; she actually does act like a healthy big sister (even if it is sometimes only an act). The moments in the story when Lia is at her most genuine, most helpful, most raw, tend to be when Emma is involved. And then, of course, Anderson capitalizes on my fear: that Emma will be the one to find Lia when she finally takes herself to the brink.
I began worrying about how this novel might end long before that scene. How could Anderson give us a satisfactory conclusion to such a complicated conflict? On one hand, a logical consequence of Lia’s worsening condition is suicide/death along similar lines as Cassie. While possible, I felt like this would be such a grim ending; I couldn’t help but dream that Anderson would give us something more hopeful. On the other hand, it would be dishonest and disappointing if Wintergirls ended with Lia suddenly “getting better”, as if there is an easy or quick fix to something like anorexia. So neither did I hold out for a sanguine and sunny ending.
For those reasons, the actual ending of Wintergirls feels right, like it’s one of the only possible endings that could work. It is hopeful but in a realistic and unpretentious way: Lia has finally realized she needs help, finally realized she wants to get better. There is an empathy for those who haven’t made that leap yet:
I avoid the drama of the girls still neck-deep in the snow, running away from the pain as fast as they can. I hope they figure it out.
Similarly, in what is clearly Anderson speaking through Lia, the last three sentences of this novel are unadulterated and pure truth: “There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever….”
Wintergirls does not dress up anorexia. It doesn’t make it sexy or glamorous. Lia never dwells on how she becomes popular because she is skinny and beautiful. Rather, Anderson presents Lia’s suffering in its rawest form. She explores the medicalization of girlhood and the social pressures that pushed Lia and Cassie into this situation. She shows how families with even the best of intentions can fail to recognize signs and offer inadequate support simply because they don’t understand what their child is going through, and instead of stopping to listen and learn, they move forward convinced they know “what’s best” for their loved one. Lastly, the novel deals with the darkest and most painful existential moments we can have: those moments when we (or the voices we conjure up) tell ourselves lies that make us question why we are still here. Anderson does all this with unbridled compassion and sensitivity, and the result is a wonderful, unvarnished work of storytelling.