Saturday, March 23, 2019

Book Review: "The Girls at 17 Swann Street" by Yara Zgheib

Sometimes reading is less an entertaining experience than one intended to teach, to provoke emotions, and make you think. That was definitely the case with Yara Zgheib's powerful The Girls at 17 Swann Street.

"How does one forget how to eat? How does one forget how to breathe? Worse: how does one remember? And how does happiness feel?"

Anna Roux is 26 years old. She was a dancer in Paris, a profession which pays close attention to an individual's weight and appearance. There was a time she lived life with great gusto, enjoying all her favorite foods, and cooking her specialty dessert, sacher torte. And when she met the man of her dreams, Matthias, they enjoyed the finer things in life, punctuated by food, wine, and adventure.

But after an injury sidelined her dance career, Anna agreed to follow Matthias to the U.S., where he had gotten a job in St. Louis. She dreamed of finding another dance opportunity, or at the very least, teaching dance. But there were no opportunities to be found, and the more time she spends alone, the more depressed she gets, and the more she starts worrying about her weight. A job in a supermarket does little to lift her spirits or self-esteem, and little by little, she gives up the foods she loves.

"They had both become too comfortably settled in the magical kingdom of make-believe. She made believe that she was happy and all was fine and he made believe it was true. It was less painful than confrontation. Confrontation just led to fights. And so she ate nothing and they both ate lies through three years of marriage, for peace, at the occasional cost of no more roller coasters, no more sharing ice cream and French fries."

As Anna's weight plummets, her health deteriorates, as does her relationship with Matthias. When her weight hits a dangerous low—88 pounds—she is admitted to 17 Swann Street, a residential program where women with life-threatening eating disorders go for treatment. Anna meets the other residents—Emm, the self-proclaimed leader of the girls, and the veteran of the house; fragile, compassionate Valerie; and Julia, who is always hungry. These women face the challenge of constant supervision, counseling, giving up most freedoms, and the worst thing of all, they must eat six meals a day.

Anna wants to recover, she wants her life and her husband back. Yet the thought of having to eat so much food, especially fattening food like bagels and cream cheese, pasta, and yogurt, is absolutely paralyzing. She cannot understand how she can survive when she's gotten by for so long with eating so little. But more and more, she realizes that her life and her marriage are worth fighting for—and they can only survive if she's willing to accept her problems and understand what kind of help she needs.

This is such an emotionally powerful book. Zgheib captures the emotional and psychological struggles faced by women with eating disorders, the immense discord that exists between knowing you have a problem and the powerlessness you feel to do anything about it. It's also an eye-opening look at how what we see—about ourselves, those we love, and our memories—is often so far from reality.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is told in short chapters, alternating between Anna's memories of Paris, the early days of her relationship with Matthias, and the despair she began feeling when they moved to the U.S., and her time in treatment, her struggles to recover, and her relationships with the other women. For me, this was an eye-opening look at eating disorders and how they take their toll on women in particular, even when they know they need help.

"Only 33% of women with anorexia nervosa maintain full recovery after nine months. Of those, approximately one-third will relapse after the nine-month mark."

I've struggled with my weight for most of my life, but I'm fortunate that I've never had to deal with the kind of problems the women in this book did. I'm grateful to Zgheib for such a powerful story and for illuminating the struggles that so many people, especially women, deal with every day.

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