I am in a serious mood this Sunday evening, so you’re going to get a serious review…
This is a gritty and gut-wrenching look at eating disorders: how they develop, how they destroy lives and the struggle that individuals with eating disorders must face while on the road to healing. The story follows Anna, a former ballerina in her mid-twenties who moved from Paris to Missouri to follow the man of her dreams, then was admitted to 17 Swann Street – an inpatient facility for girls with eating disorders – after losing so much weight that her life was at risk. As Anna tries to recover, she gains strength and insight from the other girls at the facility. Some are battling anorexia. Others are dealing with bulimia. But all have their own very individual and personal reasons for why they developed issues around food and how they have chosen to cope with it.
I appreciate the research, honesty and candor that Zgheib brings in telling the story of Anna and the girls at 17 Swann Street. The novel moves back and forth in time, shifting between the present struggles of Anna as she tries to adjust to the regimented eating schedule at the facility and struggles to eat again, then back to incidents that happened in the past, which shed light on her childhood, her marriage and some of the events that may have led to her developing anorexia.
In my opinion, one of the most striking and unique elements of this book, beyond the rawness and authenticity, is its style. Zgheib writes with such brevity, leaving out the unimportant, choosing each word carefully. There are almost no dialogue tags and sparse description, but there is just enough given to allow the reader to get a feel for the characterization, character interactions and sense of place. This style worked so well for this story, helping to lend a feeling of loneliness, deprivation and isolation to the prose, which dovetailed beautifully with Anna’s journey.
Most importantly, to me, this book exemplifies what I feel is the beauty and power of literature: it allowed me to gain a greater insight into, and empathy for, the struggles that others have to go through, as well as a greater understanding of myself. I felt like being on Anna’s journey allowed me to experience, to some extent, the thoughts and feelings of an individual suffering from anorexia nervosa. While reading the book, I gained a greater understanding of the difficulties in battling the negative thoughts around food and body image that constantly bombard the minds and hearts of those affected by this disease, as well as a deeper understanding of how challenging it is for individuals with the disease to start eating again, to put on weight. I was reminded that anorexia and bulimia can often be a physical and psychological manifestation of some deep-seated need or trauma: a desire to be perfect so that one can be loved; an attempt to regain control in a life that feels out of control; a desire to numb, with food, emotions that have become too painful to bear.
I also found myself reflecting on some of my own unhealthy thoughts around food and body image, which I started having around the age of thirteen. Young girls, and women of all ages, can often feel extreme pressure to be thin. I could identify with some of the perfectionism that Anna experiences in the story, as I think that was a driving factor for my thoughts around my own weight, my own drive to control my food intake, my own need to feel thin. While I’ve been fortunate to never suffer from anorexia myself, there is some part of me that thinks I’ll only be worthy of love if I’m ‘perfect.’ And wow, have I done some emotional eating in my time, to try to numb my feelings. We all have, right? But what if these parts of me had been just a little louder? A little stronger? A little more in control of ‘me’ than I was in control of ‘them’?
Well, there it is. I warned you that I was in a serious mood.
But this is a serious book, about a very serious subject. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S., and eating disorders are killing at least one person every 62 minutes. If the content of this review strikes a chord with you and you think you may need to speak with someone, you can reach out for help from the National Eating Disorder Association Hotline at (800) 931-2237.