"There must have been signs, but we were distracted by the roller coaster of the adventure. Paperwork, looking for a couch for the apartment, ties and shirts for Matthias."
"I used to eat. I used to like to eat, then I grew scared to eat, ceased to eat. Now my stomach hurts; I have been anorexic for so long that I have forgotten how to eat."
"I did not choose anorexia. I did not choose to starve. But every morning, over and over, I choose to fight it, again."
Thank you to Partner NetGalley for the awesome opportunity to read this book before publication. The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib is a powerful, gripping novel written by a commanding, courageous writer who addresses eating disorders and mental health head on
. It is a story that needs to be told, and Zgheib tells it in a captivating way that forces the reader to take a good long look at the reality of that situation for everyone involved.
This story is the struggle of Anna Roux, an anorexic twenty-six year old married French woman living in America with her husband of three years, Matthias. As the story unfolds, Anna has been voluntarily placed in care at 17 Swann Street in DC, a residential facility for women with severe anorexia or bulimia. The novel is a powerful examination of everything leading up to that moment side by side with the experience of being in the residential facility itself, trying to find a way back from starvation and into life.
Most notable about this novel is the raw, direct way that Anna's narration depicts how unbelievably difficult it is for someone with anorexia nervosa to overcome it, even when that person desperately wants to be well. Throughout the novel, it is readily apparent that Anna's husband Matthias adores her and that her father and sister in France are still very close to her. However, Zgheib reveals how little the family intervenes, even when they see that Anna is in crisis. Even Matthias does not act:
"They had both become too comfortably settled in the magical kingdom of makebelieve. She made believe that she was happy and all was fine, and he made believe it was true. It was less painful than confrontation. Confrontation just led to fights. And so she ate nothing and they both ate lies through three years of marriage, for peace, at the occasional cost of no more roller coasters, no more sharing ice cream and French fries."
Matthias, who clearly loves Anna dearly and sees that she is suffering, cannot find a way to reach her. Anna's other family members also do not know what to say; what they do say only leads to brutal fights. And so they go on in silence until it is absolutely impossible to keep going. The pathway back is a long and painful one for all of them, and the end is uncertain.
By tracing the path of Anna's life, Zgheib shows how someone who is seemingly successful, happy, in love, and willing to change and grow spirals down into a husk of a person, unable to look at much less consume food. Zgheib demonstrates how some catastrophic childhood events coupled with dancing ballet, concern over body image, pressure to lose weight, and major life changes in early adulthood result in a profoundly severe situation for Anna as she finds herself starving to death.
I also loved the way that Zgheib incorporates facts and statistics into the narration; those biting details make real for the reader how destructive and deadly both anorexia and bulimia can be. Zgheib lays bare the cruel facts about how anorexia physically destroys the body. As Anna lives at 17 Swann Street, she arms herself with information about the disease that plagues her body. Throughout the novel, Anna notes what she learns, such as what she read in the patient manual: "Only 33% of women with anorexia nervosa maintain full recovery after nine months. Of those, approximately one-third will relapse after the nine-month mark." Some of the information is terribly discouraging, but Anna seems to take comfort in the knowing, even if knowing is painful.
Anna's time at the house is unbelievably difficult for her. The regimes are brutal for the girls there, and the methods can be severe, though the readers comes to understand how vital those methods are for the women. Feeding tubes become a fact of life for anyone who refuses to comply with the meal plans. The required therapy sessions threaten to tear Anna apart. It's clear that the people who work there have seen everything that Anna is experiencing before, and they can sometimes seem callous and even cruel from her perspective. Yet those caretakers are saving the lives of the women there, as Anna comes to understand.
I found Anna's tale captivating, and I believe that Zgheib speaks to many of the misconceptions and biases surrounding anorexia nervosa and bulimia, forcing the reader to take a clear-eyed look at the brutal reality of life for a person living with either of those conditions. Strikingly compelling and full of heartbreak but even fuller of hope, this is a phenomenal novel that will stay with the reader long after finishing.