The Girls of The Girls of 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib belongs on the shelf I labelled Bell-Jars, from the most famous novel in the genre. The main character is usually a girl or young woman confined to a treatment facility, suffering from addiction or some other mental disorder, suicidal ideation, self-harm, or anorexia nervosa. Here the narrator, Anna Roux, is a victim of the last. She is a 26 year-old French woman, who has followed her husband Mathias to America, Saint Louis, Missouri. She is a former ballerina, and although no longer working as a dancer, continues to lose weight. As in cheer-leading, gymnastics, and modeling, anorexia is an occupational hazard for dancers. (Ballet also rivals American Profession Football for serious injuries and having to perform in spite of them.) Her husband becomes so alarmed at her condition that he compels Anna to commit herself to the faculty whose address is the title of the book.
Like alcohol and drug addiction, anorexia often represents an extreme form of misplaced spirituality. (It’s not simply a figure of speech that they feature “spirits,” “getting high” and “losing weight” and “fasting”—in the middle ages someone like Anna might have been canonized. That seems to me one of the short-comings of the treatment plan Anna encounters—the main emphasis is simply on getting her to up her caloric intake, without attention to her spiritual condition and to the experiences in her life that led to obsession with body image and self-denial. (An past unhappy affair with a director who constantly criticized Anna’s weight features in her backstory.) Being allowed to visit church on Sunday provides some solace though she is not a believer.
Having recently read Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, I was struck by the unexpected resemblance between the treatment facility and a concentration or prisoner of war camp. Both feature obsession with food and risk of starvation; the difference is that in the former the inmates starve themselves and try to hide food to avoid having to eat it. In both they experience the sudden disappearance through death of other girls they’ve become fond of. And of course anorexics look like inmates of Belsen or a Japanese POW camp.
This is a gripping story and the reader sympathizes with Anna both when she resists treatment and when she finally appears potentially on the path to recovery. The reader of the Audible edition, Saskia Maarleveld, was superb, especially with the principal character’s French pronunciations; I loved “metro” and “crepe” especially. The American voices, especially that of the CNA called “Direct Care,” were rendered in realistically flat twangy midwestern dialect that provided an ugly contest to Anna’s sophisticated voice.
I cannot quite award five stars, though. Anna is a marvelous character, but the others, especially that of her husband Mathias, who relationship is crucial to her recovery, remain vague. He is supposed to be physicist, though we learn nothing about his career or why he is in Saint Louis. Some of the scenes with the other girls are very moving, but they too were shadowy for me. But this is was an excellent story with an engaging narrator.