The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib, 4 Stars

There are many things in life we are unable to understand if we haven’t experienced them firsthand. Just a few that come to mine include discrimination, racism,  depression and anorexia. It’s not that we can’t be empathetic to people who experience them or try to help them or love those that face these afflictions. But try as we may, we can never fully understand these types of things unless we live them.

This is where books have a lot of power. Because even though we can’t fully understand what certain things feel like to live through, reading a book and seeing how the character in a work of fiction deals with their circumstances, or getting the chance to peer into the true world of a memoir writer can be so powerful. 

This year I’ve had the good fortune to read several of these types of books. The ones that tear back the curtain and try to help us understand what life is like for others. I read The Hate You Give last January and felt once I had put it down that I would be hard-pressed to find a more important book  all year.

I read My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward and cried along with Mark and Guilia as their perfect storybook romance was forever shattered by the reality of living with and managing mental illness.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is another important book. We all think we understand eating disorders, but this book gave me a new perspective. I guess I always assumed people who suffer from them choose to not eat or binge and purge. This book helped me reach a deeper understanding that it is a terrifying and uncontrollable illness. And I have to wonder if the author, Yara Zgheib has dealt personally with a disorder or loves someone who has. 

What books have you read this year that were deeply important, perspective changing books? I’d love to add them to my list. 

From the Publisher:

Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting portrait of a young woman’s struggle with anorexia on an intimate journey to reclaim her life.

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.

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.

My Review:

For me, a good book is one that makes you think, stretches your understanding of a topic or just plain compelling and compulsively readable. The Girls at 17 Swann Street fit the bill on pretty much every account.

Anna is French. And she is just about everything you would associate with a French girl. She’s a ballerina, she’s graceful, she’s beautiful, and she’s extremely delicate and thin. Too thin. She suffers from anorexia and weighs 88 pounds.

Her husband, Matthias, is a dream. Handsome, outgoing and ambitious. She follows him to America and finds herself alone during the day, no longer a dancer and struggling to feel as if she is enough for her husband, and enough in this new life. Her insecurities lead to her anorexia.

The prose is subdued, poetic at times, so it’s not surprising that when I looked up the author, Yara Zgheid, I found a blog that contains essays that are both poignant and artistic at the same time. 

While fiction, The Girls at 17 Swann Street reads like a memoir, and I wonder if the author has experience with this disorder. She tells Anna’s story in such a realistic way that it helped me reach a better understanding of what anorexia is. That it’s not a choice, but rather a crippling mental illness. 

I’d recommend this book for anyone who enjoys memoirs (yes, it is fiction), anyone who is dealing with an eating disorder or mental illness, or anyone who loves someone who is dealing with such an affliction. 

Special thanks to St. Martin’s Press and Netgalley for an e-galley in exchange for my honest review. This one is out February 5, 2019. Get your copy!


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