October 25, 2012

Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published: 2009, Viking
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
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We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers. We danced with witches and kissed monsters. We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.

Wow. I'm at a loss to describe the intense emotional impact I underwent while reading and listening to Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. The YA bookgroup that I am a part of decided to focus October's discussion on issue books, with the main focus on a reading of Wintergirls. In terms of issue books, Wintergirls was a fantastic choice. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the meeting once again (some day I will get there!), but I still enjoyed reading it and am glad that if I can't discuss it in person, then at least I can record my thoughts of it on here.

Lia and Cassie have been next-door neighbors for years. They had sleepovers every weekend, spent summers and warm afternoons in a tree house together, and at twelve years old they made a pact to be the skinniest girls. After Lia found herself committed to an institute for those dealing with eating disorder for the second time the summer before their senior year, however, she and Cassie lost touch. Cassie did not return any of Lia's phone calls, so when Cassie tried calling Lia thirty-three times one night a few days after Thanksgiving, Lia did not answer her phone. And then Lia found out that Cassie died that night.

Through her death Cassie found a release from the cycle of bulimia that had afflicted her for years. But Lia's struggles continue to get even worse. As each weight goal is reached, Lia sets a new one for herself. She exercises, eats the smallest amount possible to get by, and watches her weight get lower and lower. Lia doesn't know what exactly caused Cassie's death, but now she's haunted by visions of Cassie, in addition to her internal demons. Lia's struggle to return to normality begins before Cassie's death, but it is Cassie's death that forces all of Lia's internal and external struggles to come to a head.

First off I need to say that I've been fortunate in that I myself never had any eating disorder problems as a teen, nor did any of my friends. That being said, I wondered how difficult it would be to really emphasize with either Lia or Cassie's characters. Since Cassie's character is revealed completely through Lia's perspective both in flashbacks and hallucinations/visions, I struggled a bit more with her characterizations. Lia, however, is such a solidly-written and relatable character.

In Lia Anderson has created a protagonist unable to be ignored. I really enjoyed how fully-fleshed Lia's struggles were, and how her internal issues have external consequences and vice versa. On the one hand, Lia has been extremely conscious about her weight in one way or another for over five years. By the time the book starts, her extreme consciousness has devolved into an anorexia she cannot fight. Cassie acted as a support system in Lia's goals, so perhaps that's one reason that Cassie continues to haunt Lia. After all, by this point many external factors are attempting to help Lia break away from this path. Her parents, for one, and her psychiatrist. Lia also wants to be a good example for her little stepsister, but even that desire is not enough to supersede her desire to be the thinnest. Lia has already been hospitalized twice. I'm not sure if Anderson is truly trying to critique the practices we currently have in place for dealing with emotional and eating disorders, or rather if she's just trying to demonstrate how complex the issues really are. As the story continues, what has already been blatantly obvious to the reader starts to become apparent to Lia herself: her weight desires can never be anything but opposed to every other desire in her life.

Told through Lia's perspective, Wintergirls offers a glimpse of unreliable narration at its best. As a reader I honestly had some trouble determining what was real, what was in Lia's head, and what was a little bit of both. All the events and feelings get jumbled together in the mind of an emotionally disturbed girl. I'll admit that I have a longstanding adoration for unreliable narration which probably can be traced back to my first read of Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief. I love how unreliable narration forces the reader to become more involved in the story as he or she must work to piece events together. And Lia's use of flowery language just made sense within the context of the book. If I could have just listened to the descriptions without trying to figure out what they were referring to, that would have been perfect.

Raw and emotionally wrenching, Wintergirls was an incredibly difficult read for me. It's not something I can ever imagine re-reading. But, really, I don't think that I'd want a book with this subject matter to be written any other way. It is an important and thought-provoking read that I think should be required reading for teen girls and those past that age who may need help remembering how difficult the teenage years can be.

Additional note: I listened to the first half of the book via audio CDs and read the second. I hadn't listened to an audiobook yet and, with a long drive over the weekend, I felt that this would be a perfect time to give it a try. But then I got impatient and I ended up reading the second half of the book since I knew it would be faster. And I'm glad I did so, because Wintergirls is a book full of experimental formatting which I would have completely missed if I only listened to the audiobook. I'm not opposed to trying an audiobook again, although I need something that is more traditionally written. And also something that is fairly straightforward. I worry that as a reader I'll lose a lot by simply listening and being unable to see the text. I'd appreciate any suggestions of books that work really well in the audiobook format!
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I definitely lose a lot when I listen to an audio instead of read. I tend to get audio books of old favorites so it's mostly books I have already read.
    This is one of her books I haven't read and have been meaning to for your ages. Your review definitely has me thinking I need to pick this one up soon, it sounds very good!

    1. Thank you, Candace! I'd definitely recommend reading this book. The only other book I read by Anderson is Speak, and I do think that this is just as powerful as Speak was for me.
      That's a good suggestion with the audiobooks. I do want to listen to the Harry Potter audiobooks - I heard they're fabulous. Having this blog, though, makes me feel like time shouldn't be spent re-reading haha.

  2. I'm not a huge fan of issue reads because I find them very difficult to read, as well. Though I can see why you would think this one should be required reading. I have yet to read anything by this author, but I always hear such good things that I really should read this one, as well as Speak. I think I'll bypass the audiobook if there is special formatting that I could be missing out on! Thanks for this excellent review, Amanda!

    1. You should! And reading issues books is hard, but bearable if I *really* space them out and am in the mood, so perhaps the same could work for you. Thank you, Aylee!

  3. I loved Wintergirls, and as someone who could very much relate to her story, I personally think Anderson was trying to unravel the complicated nature of the disease. I never underwent treatment of any kind, but her portrayal of Lia's thoughts was frighteningly accurate. As for the audio books, I would highly recommend the Harry Potter series read by Jim Dale. The book choice might not be the same as what books you have been reading, by the looks of your site, but Jim Dale does a fantastic job with al sorts of different voices. My family listens to one book on tape whenever we take a car ride!

    1. I do think that Anderson does a good job of showing how complex the disease is, for the person suffering, surrounding friends & family, and our society as a whole. That's good to hear you found it to be pretty authentic, and thank you for coming forth about your own experiences. These kinds of stories need to be told and brought to the attention of the greater public.
      And the Harry Potter books are some of my all-time favorites. I've heard good things about the audiobooks, so I would like to check them out.


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