Laurie Halse Anderson does not write books that are easy or comfortable to read. Speak was terrifying in its honesty and accuracy. And Wintergirls is the same. But if I say that I love reading YA fiction for the real way it makes me remember my teen years, the good and the bad, then I cannot shy away from the horrors that can, sadly, also be part of growing up.
Lia and Cassie grew up as the best of best friends. They did everything together, which became their downfall. After a summer at drama camp, Cassie came home with a plan to be skinny, and laxatives to help her get to her goal. Lia followed along half heartedly, until New Year’s Eve and the promise they made to each other to be the two skinniest girls at school. The pact does more than ruin their bodies; it tears apart their friendship.
Cassie takes it too far; her body is found in a room in a rundown motel, after a weekend of binging and purging. After not speaking to her for months, she calls Lia from the room 33 times. Lia never picks up, unable to face her. The next day, she learns of Cassie’s death.
Lia must come to terms with the loss of her former friend, and the guilt from not answering her phone. Added to that is the guilt she feels for not letting Cassie escape the pact, when she tried to get better. Lia was afraid of doing it alone.
The news triggers her own disordered eating. Calories are counted and punishing exercise taken to burn away every weakness. It engulfs her, even as Cassie’s ghost taunts and encourages, the way Lia did to her live friend. But then, Lia is not alive, she “is a ghost with a beating heart.”
At no point in reading this story did I feel that Anderson was forcing her characters into any situation. Everything flowed naturally and organically, without it seeming to force an ending – the story reached the natural conclusions for the characters. She writes incredibly haunting, real characters, without judgement about their struggle. The battle for hope, through all the despair, was evident in her first person narrative, while the cross-outs, italics, and blank spaces in her prose evoke the torment that Lia felt in dealing with her own guilt and her own demons.
I cannot say that I liked this book, but can say that I could not put it down.
This is a tough book to read, but I believe appropriate for any teen.
Wintergirls is published by Penguin Young Readers Group.