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Wintergirls By Laurie Halse Anderson Essay

Although her parents attempt to connect with her, we get the sense that over many years of struggle, a kind of cautious script is in place between all family members, so little genuine exchange occurs. In Lia’s barren world, the warmest voices come from the anorexia chat rooms, which provide a chirpy camaraderie: “I need a text buddy for fasting tomorrow. . . . Please help!”

At times Lia’s narrow, repetitive mind-set makes her a frustrating narrator. Certainly her obsessional behaviors (counting calories, ritually berating herself) are central to the illness, but at such times Lia can feel more like a concatenation of symptoms than a distinct person.

This very quality, however, may make Lia recognizable to many teenagers. One issue the author must have confronted is the potential of “Wintergirls” to be a “trigger” for anorexia, as psychologists term it. Can a novel convey, however inadvertently, an allure to anorexic behavior? While to my mind there is nothing in “Wintergirls” that glamorizes the illness, for some the mere mention of symptoms is problematic. “It’s about competition,” an anorexia sufferer once explained to me. “Sometimes all it takes to get triggered is to read about someone who weighs less than you do.”

We recognize Lia, but it’s sometimes hard to relate to her. Withdrawing, she sees life as if it were a series of meals to be gotten through (“I bit the days off in rows. . . . Bite. Chew. Swallow”). Parts of her story are hurried, telescoped, and this can make it hard for the reader to feel much about what is occurring.

Yet the book deepens. Where Lia had been hiding the extent of her illness before Cassie died, pretending to eat, playing the part of the “good girl,” increasingly, as her self-destruction gathers force, the truth emerges; the surface placidity of her life begins to crack.

Faced with his daughter’s obvious deterioration, Lia’s father (of whom she says, “We just pretend to think about talking”) speaks honestly about his frustration and rage. In a moving scene late in the book, Lia’s mother, a cardiac surgeon, portrayed as compulsive and cold, breaks down in tears, and we finally see her pain and love and confusion. Elijah, a young man whom Lia comes to know after Cassie’s death, someone wayward in his own right but with a sweetness and moral directness, catches Lia off guard. with his cleareyed questions. His presence invites her both to mark who she wishes she was — a healthy girl — and to grasp how far she is from being so. But no one event or person “saves” Lia; when her salvation comes, it is entirely of her own making.

Anderson, the author of “Speak” and other award-winning novels for teenagers, has written a fearless, riveting account of a young woman in the grip of a deadly illness. By the end of the book, though we don’t know what Lia’s future will look like, she and her family have dropped their “scripts” and have begun to speak from the heart.

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By Laurie Halse Anderson

278 pp. Viking. $17.99. (Ages 12 and up)

I think that Anderson features several topics in Wintergirls that could be the focus of some compelling essays.  One topic is the role that body image plays in modern girls.  The focus of Anderson's work is how body image can be a haunting reality for all teens.  Cassie and Lia are both afflicted with such a condition.  The idea of how consciousness is impacted by eating disorders helps to give the book its title:  "You're not dead, but you're not alive either. You're a wintergirl caught in between two worlds. You're a ghost with a beating heart." The perceived springtime of youth is offset with the wintry affliction of life with an eating disorder.  An essay on how eating disorders impact youth as seen in Cassie's and Lia's narratives would be compelling.  It would reflect one of the most dominant issues in the novel.

Anderson's work speaks to how individuals can reclaim themselves from a condition of "winter" that might seem irredeemable.  This is seen in how restoration is viewed as a process which takes time:  “There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a mirror that doesn't matter anymore.”   In seeing Lia's progression and Cassie's destruction, an essay could be constructed on how human beings are show to possess both realities with them.  How are human beings agents of their own destruction as well as their own redemption? What does the novel say about the qualities and habits in both experiences in a world where "living is the hardest?" Using Cassie and Lia as examples of this speaks to what it means to be human, and a critical dynamic in the novel.

Finally, I think that a really compelling essay could be generated on the idea of friendship. Simply addressing what the novel has to say about friendship as seen in the cases of Cassie and Lia could be very profound.  Lifelong friends who are separated in high school, the death of one impacts the other in such a profound way. In some respects, their friendship seems to magnify after Cassie's suicide.  Being able to explore how friendship is seen in the novel could reveal much about adolescence and the concept of connection with another human being.   These essay topics strike at many of the novel's themes and speak to its powerful effect on the reader.

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