Book Reviews Young Adult Books

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

8 out of 10: It’s a beautifully-written book, but hard to read and not something everyone will have an interest in.

Laurie Halse Anderson shot to fame ten years ago with her book, Speak. It got a National Book Award nod and went on to be on basically every YA list that exists. Then, last fall, she wrote Chains about a slave girl during the Revolutionary War. It too got a National Book Award nomination and went on to win the Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction. In January, she received the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime contributions to children and young adult literature.

And now, in a week, out comes Wintergirls, a book with a million positive reviews already about two girls with eating disorders.

Laurie Halse Anderson is having a good year, is what I’m saying.

The book follows Lia who has been struggling with anorexia for years – she’s been in and out of a hospital for treatment twice, but it’s made no difference. She tabulates the calories of every item of food she eats (or even sees, for that matter). She tinkers with the scale and weighs herself down with quarters to keep her parents from knowing how much weight she is still losing. She’s moved out of her mom’s house (her mom is a doctor) and in with her dad and step-mom who she thinks she can more easily convince that everything is okay.

Her friend, Cassie, has just died in a motel somewhere nearby of unknown causes. Just before she died, she called Lia thirty-three times. Lia never answered; they hadn’t spoken in five months.

It turns out that several years earlier Lia had bet Cassie that she could be thinner and the two had been competing for that goal since then, Cassie via bulimia and Lia through anorexia.

Even Cassie’s terrible death – alone, in a horrible old motel – isn’t enough to stop Lia though, who continues to push her weight downward. But now Cassie is haunting her and, unlike Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol trying to get Scrooge to learn from Jacob’s mistakes, Cassie is pushing her to continue her downward spiral into certain death by starvation, coaxing her to keep losing weight, keep lying, cheating and doing whatever she needs to do in order to avoid intervention.

It’s tempting to say something like “I don’t even need to say how great a writer Laurie Halse Anderson is. You don’t win all those awards if you aren’t a good writer.” Except that many people who aren’t really that great of writers do win all sorts of awards and get a lot of praise and popularity. So it should be said – she is a terrific writer, so good you almost don’t even notice, until you realize you’ve forgotten you’re reading; you think you’re living the story yourself.

At the same time, I kept thinking as I read this book, “Who is this for?” It seems like if you suffered from these disorders, this book wouldn’t tell you anything new. And if you’re a parent or a friend, this book seems to really say “You can’t do anything about it until they are ready – on their own – to choose health over being 85 pounds.”

There were some parts (mostly the cutting parts), that I had to just skim because it was really too awful for me to read.

It’s weird to read a book that you think is beautiful and brilliantly-written, and yet you still hesitate to recommend. It just really is not a book for everyone, but if the topic is something you can deal with or have an interest in, you shouldn’t miss it.


Thanks to Kelly for loaning me her advanced copy of this book.

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  • Reply Shelly March 11, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    This book sounds fascinating. I’ve always been morbidly curious about eating disorders (CLEARLY I have never had one!). But the psychological aspects fascinate me. What do anorexics think as they don’t eat? How do bulimics feel when they throw up? Thanks for the recommendation – I will add this to my list of books to get.

  • Reply miri March 11, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    It sounds rough! But I LOVE Speak and I think Laurie Halse Anderson is a fantastic writer, so I’ll probably look it up. I’ll definitely look for Chains, too, because I haven’t read it.

  • Reply heidikins March 11, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I am fascinated by this for reasons I don’t really want to discuss, will definitely be checking it out.

    Also, I loved Lolita, but have a hard time recommending it due to subject matter (hello, creepy middle-age man loving and seducing a child.)


  • Reply biblauragraphy March 11, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    In response to your question of who the book is for: while it doesn’t give easy solutions for families, friends, and other people who are involved with a teen who has an eating disorder, what it does do is give some understanding of where the teen might be coming from. It can be so easy for people to say “Well, why doesn’t she just eat more?” I think a book like this can make a lot of people see why that’s not as easy as it may seem.

    And of course it’s also going to be read heavily by all the teens who read about abuse and suicide and rape and kidnapping and cutting and eating disorders because they’re curious and horrified by all those things. We’ve got holds on it here already.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Reply Heather March 11, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Interesting. I cannot imagine how it must be to have a family member with such a sad, serious problem that seems so out of control.

    I just finished It’s Not About the Bike – flew through that one. Now I’m onto Rocket Boys. My favorite of your recommended books has definitely been Hunger Games.

  • Reply BrittWilk March 11, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    sounds really interesting but really sad. this is a tough world to raise girls in. eating disorders are so scary to me.

  • Reply Whitney March 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    That sounds like it was really interesting, but I can see how it would be hard, too.
    That’s so cool you got to read it before it even came out! 🙂

  • Reply Amy Sorensen March 12, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I’m jealous you’ve read it already. I am with you: I think LHA is an awesome writer.

    And, I know just what you mean about hesitating to recommend it. There are some books that definitely make you pause before you suggest it, unless you know the reader a bit. I felt that way about The Burn Journals.

  • Reply Packrat March 12, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Thanks, but I think I’ll skip this one. Would probably give me nightmares.

  • Reply Lisa March 14, 2009 at 1:39 am

    one of my best friends was seriously anorexic in college so I am interested in this one, thanks for the nice review.

  • Reply Amy March 15, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    nice review! it looks like a tough subject but I really like reading books about girls with problems. Don’t know why…

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