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By Laurie Halse Anderson
First: 2009 is the tenth anniversary of Laurie Halse Anderson's classic work SPEAK. Yes, really. It's that old. I didn't read it the year it came out, but I can still remember when I first read it. Returning from GT Spring Break trip I ran out of books and borrowed one from my English teacher. She handed me SPEAK, which she hadn't read yet but heard was good. And now I'm in my second year of college, about to turn twenty, and I feel old.
Second: WINTERGIRLS is an issue book, even more overtly than SPEAK. (Not to say it doesn't deliver a great story.) Like any issue book, it made me think. In my twisted case, it made me obsessed with what I ate while reading the book. I snack a lot people. Ritz crackers with brie, french bread with honey butter, mint truffle kisses, Girl Scout cookies, chips and salsa, chocolate covered pretzels, cherry yogurt, and who knows what else. And you know what: I'm at a much healthier weight than I've been for most of my life. I'm reading about Lia's struggle to go down to 100, then 95, then 90, then then then and all I can think about is how happy the day I was when I first hit 100 pounds. I felt like a real person instead of a doll.
But Lia doesn't want to feel like a real person. She's a wintergirl, dancing between life and death. She's anorexic and her best friend Cassie was bulimic. But now Cassie's dead and she called Lia thirty-three times before she died, but Lia didn't answer since they were fighting. Those thirty-three calls haunt Lia and pull her farther from redemption.
Lia's narration took me a few chapters to get into, but then I loved the rhythm of it. Lia's voice is as strong as her will and Anderson uses some nice typographic trips to change the weight of certain thoughts. (No pun intended.) The head-trip is offset by Lia's very normal family. Her stepmother Jennifer obviously cares and does her best. When she does make a move against Lia, her reasoning makes sense. On the other side of the coin, Lia obviously cares for her "pleasantly plump" stepsister Emily, who couldn't care less about her appearance and enjoys playing sports badly. She does have trouble explaining to people why her sister was in the hospital. Lia builds her mother up as a bad guy, but I find her a sympathetic character as well.
The only antagonist in the book is internal, which I like. Anderson recognizes how tough it can be to work through your issues even if you live in a supportive environment. Lia knows she's too skinny but she knows she's too big and every time she looks at food she sees the calories just as much as she sees the deliciousness.
My only complaint? I'd love to see more of Elijah, the boy who works at the crappy motel where Cassie died. I fell in love with him on his first appearance. I appreciate Anderson not shoehorning a romance into a book that doesn't need it, but surely we could get more than a few tantalizing glimpses of him.
Anderson's work is somewhat hit-and-miss with me, but WINTERGIRLS is definitely a hit. The prose and characterization are on. You get the impact of anorexia but don't finish the book feeling completely bummed out. You'll enjoy discovering whether and wintergirl can become a real girl. (And if you don't like it, you can stare at the pretty cover. I vote this book most likely to be picked up by fantasy fans on accident.)
WINTERGIRLS will be available March 19. You can find out more about Anderson on her website, el jay, or MySpace. Plus, Wintergirls has a MySpace of its own. It's got a niftly little excerpt and everything.