NYRB Classics collector. Reads anything, so long as it's good. Sometimes historian. Frequently grumpy: you've been warned. Also at aliceunderskies.tumblr.com.
Speak was a vital book of my adolescence--it is a YA problem novel done exactly right--by which I mean the problems of the main character do not take the histrionic, exhibitionist center stage that is so often found in YA lit of this type. The focus of that story is trained on the protagonist and her essential strengths and talents and how she draws on them to survive and overcome. It is a fierce and hopeful book, a book that helped sustain me through several deeply miserable years--personal proof of how powerful and important YA lit can be for teenagers.Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Wintergirls. Anderson is undoubtedly a gifted writer--though her style, in this book, is sometimes over-the-top, that's evocative enough of what I remember about teenage years to be permissible--but I feel she fails drastically in the vital arena of character building. Lia is so consumed by her disease that she never evinces any evidence of personality beyond calorie-counts and self-destruction. We are told that she loves to read, that she loves her half-sister--the vital emphasis being placed on told, for Anderson never convincingly demonstrates that these traits beyond mere statement. There is nothing in Lia that suggests to me an actual human being with hopes of survival--the only believable parts of her characterization are the ones that relate to her anorexia. Perhaps this is the point and I am failing to appreciate it. I don't have the common set of experiences that made Speak so vital to me; I can't say for sure whether or not Anderson accurately depicts the anorexic mindset. I half-suspect she does, and that this might indeed be a disease that obliterates identity, reducing it to pounds and calories. In that case, maybe my complaint is that Anderson simply does her job too well: she gets so far inside the anorexic mind that she fails to depict the inevitable redemptive moments convincingly. Because I, for one, was thoroughly dubious of the sudden end. Unlike Speak's book-length struggle towards healing and its affirming climax, Lia's transformation is dubiously tacked on after hundreds of pages of dogged self-destruction, & this transformation is so sure of itself as permanent that it jars radically with the rest of the book. The sense I was left with was not that of bittersweet triumph and lingering hope. Rather, I was horrified and unconvinced. Lia is so totally ill and absolutely nothing else that it is impossible for me to accept health as a viable path for her. Because of this, I have serious reservations about whether or not the book should be given to its presumed target audience of teenage girls, particularly teenage girls with eating disorders. It doesn't romanticize eating disorders in the least--it is far too brutal for that--but neither does it convincingly depict anorexia as a disease that can be returned from. Perhaps some might find solace in the book's existence as a voice that articulates perfectly their experience; maybe it resonates with people who have dealt with similar issues--I don't know. It's possible, I suppose, but on this controversy I have to side with the cautious and the skeptical and say that Wintergirls is a book with potential to do far more harm than good.