Welcome to Title Talk, 10.2019. Sharing my review of The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib. This book was my virtual book club’s choice for our October read and I devoured it. With my ears. Made every excuse to go somewhere in my car so I could listen to the book on Audible. Set a new personal best for finishing one of our book club titles in under ten days I think. It is going to snow!!
I think the reason I enjoyed – not enjoyed but, maybe, liked this book so much was because it hit close to home. Let me explain. But before I do, here’s a little information about the book.
The Girls at 17 Swann Street
4.4 out of 5 stars on Amazon
4.0 out of 5 stars on Goodreads
“A singular celebration of the lifesaving power of community and small gestures.” – The New York Times Book Review
“This absorbing page-turner illuminates the raw courage of people who, struggling for their lives, somehow find the strength to support those around them.” – People Magazine, February 2019 People Picks
“Zgheib’s lyrical, dream-like style will resonate with fans of Wally Lamb’s and Anne Tyler’s novels and Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs.” – Booklist
Just realized in preparing this post that this is Yara Zgheib’s debut novel. Oh, to write like this the first time out of the gate. Yara describes herself as a “constant writer, traveler, daydreamer…a bookworm, writer, and passionate consumer of wine and chocolate” [source]. And I would add fellow blogger as she also writes at Aristotle at Afternoon Tea.
From Goodreads, here:
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.
The Girls at 17 Swann Street took me back in time to my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. Like the main character, Anna, I was anorexic. Coincidentally (or not), we both weighed 88 pounds at our lowest point and were of similar height, around 5’6″, I think. I was taking ballet in my freshman year of college but would not call myself a dancer. I do remember, however, my dance teacher complimenting me at 88 pounds for finally having a dancer’s body.
Did a little research trying to determine if the author has ever suffered from anorexia nervosa but was unable to find anything that would suggest that. This story has such a authentic feel, the characters do things and feel emotions that I remember feeling during my struggles. As I read or listened to this book, poignantly narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, old memories came flooding back and Anna became even more real to me.
Rituals We Shared
Not eating anything but an apple for days. And then, only eating an apple because her stomach was growling so loudly. I did the same thing. When we finally did eat an apple, we would cut them into the tiniest little bits in order to make the apple last longer.
Anna began preparing food for her loved ones. So did I. In some ways, it is a distraction so others don’t notice how little the anorexic is eating. It is also a way of controlling how food is prepared. I remember my mother adding a pat of margarine when cooking canned vegetables. That horrified me as an anorexic.
Weighing daily, multiple times a day, weighing after each trip to the bathroom. Being cold all the time. Noticing a light layer of hair coming up all over the anorexic’s body. Ceasing to menstruate because of excess exercise and/or lower than normal body mass. Not eating all day in anticipation of dinner out, even a simple meal.
Zgheib paints a very accurate portrait of Anna and the girls at 17 Swann Street. She weaves eating disorder statistics and educational information on recovery through secondary characters like the ‘Direct Care’ staff at Swann Street. The reactions of family members and other loved ones to Anna’s illness are also accurate. Anorexics are so fragile, like porcelain or blown glass dolls. Those who love an anorexic often walk on egg shells around her.
Causes of Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders
There is no one reason why someone develops an eating disorder. Many factors such as “a combination of biological, psychological, and/or environmental abnormalities contribute to the development of these illnesses.” [source] The professionals at 17 Swann Street quiz Anna about any kind of trauma that might have triggered her anorexia. She seems almost oblivious to the impact some of the traumatic occurrences in her young life could have had. I was never sure what caused my own disorder and may never know.
It was 1974 when I first became sick; before anorexia was really even a thing. Before Karen Carpenter’s death. Before Princess Diana’s public battles with eating disorders.
This book will stay with me for a long time, where other books I have read and liked soon slip away from memory. Had to listen to The Girls on 17 Swann Street in little segments because it was so hauntingly familiar. Then needed time to process, remember and reflect before picking it up again. But the story is told in many bite-sized chapters that made doing so easier. I rated this book, a heart-breaking but ultimately hopeful story of overcoming one’s demons, a 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
Have you or anyone you’ve known struggled with an eating disorder? I was surprised that several of the gals in our virtual book club shared that this book hit close to home for them, too. Some of them on a personal level, some through an immediate family member. Those who read the book seemed to like it and be deeply moved by Anna’s story.
For more information on eating disorders, please visit Eating Disorder Hope, here.
Hugs and kisses,