Review: The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

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☆☆➹⁀☆ 5 stars ☆➹⁀☆☆

What It’s About:

The chocolate went first, then the cheese, the fries, the ice cream. The bread was more difficult, but if she could just lose a little more weight, perhaps she would make the soloists’ list.

Perhaps if she were lighter, danced better, tried harder, she would be good enough. Perhaps if she just ran for one more mile, lost just one more pound.

Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears – imperfection, failure, loneliness – she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live. Women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.

Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting, intimate journey of a young woman’s struggle to reclaim her life. Every bite causes anxiety. Every flavor induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.

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My Thoughts:

From the start, Yara Zgheib’s debut novel, The Girls at 17 Swann Street, is a seriously compelling novel. Even though the book left me feeling melancholy, I couldn’t put it down. This is a story of women battling eating disorders that are associated with depression and anxiety. It is told primarily from the perspective of a 26-year-old former ballerina named Anna Roux.

Anna’s story is center stage, and it unfolds in the past as well as the present. Present day, Anna, is a mere 88 pounds and still in denial about having an eating disorder. It was so painful to read of Anna’s illusions and denials about her health. Her drastic weight loss has left her memory hazy, but she periodically shares snippets of the challenges she faced in childhood, as an aspiring ballerina, and then as a scorned woman. Through budding relationships with the other women at the Swann Street facility, readers get a superficial glimpse at the whats and whys of their respective challenges. The issues that lead to their eating disorders are maddening. Their current physical and mental states are tragic. I felt equally fearful and hopeful for the fates of each woman.

While some of the details of the circumstances of a facility like 17 Swann Street are highly fictionalized, The Girls at 17 Swann Street is about respectfully highlighting a serious mental and physical health issue. Readers get a little insight to this devastating illness through the daily weigh-ins, the anguish about eating “so much”, and the fear of giving into the pleasure of eating. Not every woman will choose to try to win the battle, and those who do face the possibility of relapse after release.

Anna’s story ends at a stated pivotal stage of the her post-release relapse period. Will she continue to choose to battle her demons or will she decide it is just too much? Eerily befitting, the first song I heard on the radio after I finished this thought-provoking book, was the Karen Carpenter hit, We’ve Only Just Begun (Ms. Carpenter died from complications related to her anorexia nervosa in 1983). That helped me decide that I was hopeful for Anna Roux and her loving, supportive family.

 

 

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