Desert Isle Keeper
Lia Overbrook and Cassie Parrish were once best friends. They had each other’s backs, they shared secrets, and they made a promise sealed in blood. They were going to do whatever it took to be completely in control of their bodies, to be thin, to be thinner, to be perfect.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls begins with the fallout of that promise. Lia, after therapy for her anorexia, lives with her father and stepmother. Cassie is dead – but on the night she went on her final binge, she called Lia thirty-three times. Their friendship had disintegrated by then, though, partly because of the pressure from their parents, so Lia didn’t pick up.
Lia’s struggle with both her eating disorder and her guilt is heightened when Cassie’s ghost appears to her at night. The ghost may or may not be a manifestation of Lia’s conscience, but whatever it is, it’s terrifying. It knows exactly what to say to hurt her. Except what Cassie really wants isn’t to punish Lia, it’s to bring her into “dangerland”, and then give her that final push over the edge, so they can be together again.
While Lia and her mother are all but estranged, she has a younger sister who looks up to her and whom she loves. She doesn’t want to die. But the stress of her parents’ worry about her – which includes weekly weighing-in sessions and monitoring what she eats – starts to take a toll too, and sometimes there’s only one thing that makes Lia feel better. Well, two things, if you count the knife she keeps hidden. The days grow darker as the year slides into winter, and her body becomes easier to hide under sweaters. Finally Lia has to confront the choices she and Cassie made, and decide whether she wants to walk out of the woods.
Wintergirls can be an unnerving read, especially the parts where Lia starts cutting herself. On the other hand, it’s an intensely evocative book. The descriptions are so lyrical and offbeat that it’s not even like reading poetry – it’s more like poetry washing over you. When Lia thinks of Cassie being dead :
Cassie’s in the morgue. Last night she slept there in a silver drawer, eyes getting used to the dark.
And later, at night, Cassie tells her :
“You’re not dead, but you’re not alive, either. You’re a wintergirl, Lia-Lia, caught in between the worlds. You’re a ghost with a beating heart. Soon you’ll cross the border and be with me.”
Once or twice, the writing comes across as trying-too-hard (I feel sorry for whoever read the audiobook version and had to say “Must. Not. Eat.” about two hundred times in a row), but on the whole, it’s unforgettable. Ms. Anderson is a consummate stylist and I loved the descriptions in the story. I also liked the symbolism, from pomegranate seeds to fairy tales, especially the ones with glass coffins.
And most of all, I wanted Lia to live. I didn’t find her an easy character to like, but being in her head is often fascinating and I could relate to a lot of her struggles. It was also great how she imagined kissing a boy, or maybe a girl, and this was just a casual, unstressed thought rather than a coming-out-of-the-closet moment. Wintergirls has a permanent place on my keeper shelf.