Every once in a great while, a book comes along and punches me right in the gut. It sounds unpleasant, and in a way, I suppose it is, but it’s also the best way I can describe my visceral reaction to certain very powerful stories such as Yara Zgheib’s début novel, The Girls of 17 Swann Street. It’s the story of one woman’s battle with a deadly eating disorder, and it’s literally one of the best books I’ve ever been fortunate enough to read.
Our heroine is Anna Roux, a professional ballet dancer who is originally from France, but moves to the United States with her husband. She’s been forced to take some time away from the stage due to an injury, and she’s not coping well with the down time. Her husband works long hours, and Anna finds herself alone quite a bit of the time. At first, she doesn’t mind so much, but as time passes and she begins to feel ever more disconnected from her former life, she begins to spiral into a state of deep depression.
As a dancer, Anna is no stranger to watching her weight, but it quickly becomes an obsession she’s unable to beat. When our story opens, Anna weighs only eighty-eight pounds, and her doctors tell her she’ll die if she doesn’t seek help. Anna isn’t really all that interested in changing her relationship with food, but neither does she want to die, so she enters an in-patient treatment program designed for women with eating disorders.
Life at 17 Swann Street isn’t easy for Anna. She and the other patients are required to eat six small meals per day and undergo hours of various therapies. At first, Anna tries her best not to comply with the treatment, but as time passes, she begins to understand the many harmful effects anorexia has had on her life.
Most of the novel takes place within the walls of the treatment center, but we are also given glimpses into Anna’s life before she arrives at 17 Swann Street. I’m glad the author chose to tell the story in this way, as eating disorders are not well understood by society at large, so it’s helpful to witness the progression of Anna’s illness.
There’s a lot to unpack in a book like this, and I’m extremely impressed with Ms. Zgheib’s handling of the subject matter. She portrays Anna’s struggle in a realistic but sensitive manner, never relying on shock value to get her point across. Her writing is lush and lyrical and so very impactful, leaving me breathless a time or two.
The supporting characters are fantastic. Each woman at the treatment center has her own issues surrounding food, and the author gives us tiny glimpses into how those issues have negatively affected each of their lives. The focus of the story is definitely Anna’s journey, but no one lives in a vacuum and I was glad to get to know a little about the women who were by her side during some of the most difficult days of her life.
I could gush on and on about the wondrousness that is The Girls At 17 Swann Street, but I lack the words necessary to fully convey how utterly astounding this book is. It’s definitely not an easy read, but it’s so worth your time and attention. It’s the kind of story that many women living in today’s world are sure to relate to, even if their relationship to food and body image don’t mirror Anna’s exactly. It left me with a feeling of finally being seen and heard in today’s literature, something I haven’t often felt when reading books about the female body. Ms. Zgheib has earned a spot on my list of authors to keep an eye on, and I’m waiting with bated breath to see what her next book has to offer.
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