Laurie Halse Anderson is without equal when she writes about teenagers and the angst that so often overtakes their lives. Speak and Twisted are two of her previous books that leave the reader emotionally drained. Wintergirls is a remarkable addition to this genre. As a professional educator who has worked with teenagers for the last 35 year of my life and as a mother, this book is frightening and leaves you with a knot in your stomach as if you had been punched. Anderson is in the minds of her protagonists and she opens those minds to her readers.
Wintergirls opens as Lia has been informed about Cassandra (Cassie) Parrish's death alone in a motel room. The two girls were best friend from grade school to just a few months before the onset of the novel. They are "wintergirls", stuck between two worlds- life and death. Lia declares that she and Cassie were no longer best friends and then is haunted by the fact that on the night of her death Cassie tried calling her 33 times. What ensues is the struggle that Lia faces every minute of every day, every time she tries to eat. Her mind can only see the calories that each morsel contains. The reader sees her falling so fast into a chasm from which she will be hard to rescue. She has had two in-patient treatment hospitalizations for her disease. She learned not how to cope and overcome her disease, but only how to play the game to appease those who are trying to help her. (She has sewn quarters into the pocket of her robe so that it will appear she has not lost weight for her Tuesday weigh-ins that her stepmother does according to her discharge instructions.) But, she is determined to win the challenge even if it threatens her life also. There are always five more pounds to lose and another person to deceive, including herself. Her coping mechanism of cutting adds to her desperate state and the pain we feel for her.
The relationships in the book are complex. Lia lives with her father, divorced from her mother who is a very successful surgeon, her stepmother, and her stepsister, Emma. Each impacts her life in positive and negative ways, but it is Emma who is always on Lia's mind. Elijah, the young man who finds Cassie and who works at the motel where she died, provides an outlet for Lia. With him she can be herself, but that platonic relationship just is too good to be true. We as readers keep hoping that someone will be able to relate to Lia and finally help her.
Laurie Halse Anderson allows readers into the mind of Lia with the way the type is set in the book. We are privy to Lia's real thought as they appear with a line scratched through them. And we are reminded constantly of the 33 times Cassie tried to call Lia. Then there is the incredible chapter 04:00 the consists entirely of Must.Not.Eat. repeated over and over, but the last words on each line are always Must.Eat.
This is a disturbing book, but it is a book that cannot and should not be put down. There has been a concern that for those who are battling disordered eating diseases, the book may be a trigger and should be withheld - censored - from them. But it is one of the few books that can really speak to someone who suffers from anorexia or bulimia. If it can help one person realize that help is available and there are people who truly care about them, then the risk is worth it. And even when you do finish the last page, close the cover, and put the book back on the shelf, I guarantee that it will never leave your heart.