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Book Review: The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib (4/5)

24 Mar

I forget why I added this to my TBR originally, it’s not a subject I’ve read about before. It was probably recommended on some list that I trusted and added it. It only sat for a year because I’m moving through my list a lot faster lately.

Cover Image via Goodreads

The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting, intimate journey of a young woman’s struggle to reclaim her life. 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.

This book disturbed me at times and I think that’s a credit to how well it was written. I felt like I really got into Anna’s head and could understand her struggles with anorexia. It was at times hard to relate to because I’ve never experienced anorexia, but at other times, I could understand it really well. I struggled with body image at points in my life and never revered to the levels that Anna did, but I could see traces of my fears and coping in what she and her housemates experienced. It was painful because it was so real.

The characters felt very real. Having Anna in a treatment facility made it possible to explore different degrees and types of eating disorders. It was interesting to see the differences between Anna and Julia and how they reacted to food and how they felt about their disorders. The conversation the two had in Julia’s room was really enlightening. I appreciated that the focus was really on Anna and Matthias. Having him so involved helped emphasize the impact of Anna’s disease on her family. And how she’s the luckiest girl in the world.

Matthias was my favorite character. He was so dedicated to Anna that it almost broke my heart. He was driving over an hour every night just to spend a short amount of time with Anna. And the dedication it must have taken to help her continue her plan after she came home must have been immense. I can’t imagine watching my spouse go through anorexia and feeling like I couldn’t help or fix anything It must have been really frustrating.

I’ve had bouts of poor body image in my life, though never to the extreme that Anna and her housemates did. I could relate to that; always seeing flaws in my body and never feeling good enough no matter how much weight I lost. It’s a loss of control feeling and I understand why Anna went to the extremes she did to feel in control again.

Yara Zgheib
Image via New York Times

Hearing about the internal struggles Anna had when she tried to eat were very real to me and I thought they were wonderfully done. I’ve had times where my brain seems to be fighting itself, battling between logic and some part of it that seems to have a completely different agenda. It struck home with me and I was so happy when she was able to overcome that voice. It was a great way to show her fight.

I did feel like Anna’s fight was maybe a little too easy. She sees girls come and leave the house while she’s there, but she’s the only one to leave for a positive reason. She sees these girls who have been there for ages, like Emm, but gets out very quickly. I felt it was a bit too accelerated to be believable but at the same time I want to think that treatment could be effective enough to help someone in that short amount of time.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Saskia Maarleveld. I thought she was a wonderful choice for Anna’s story. She had a good accent for a native French speaker and was able to affect a good American accent for the US-born characters. She was able to portray the fear Anna felt very well, too. I could feel the panic and I think it had me running faster when it would get really bad.

Zgheib makes a great point that Anna is the luckiest girl in the world. She has anorexia, but she also has a family that loves her and the access to care that will help her get better. Not everyone with a mental illness is so lucky. People with illnesses need access to care as well as the support and love of those around them. Emm didn’t have that support and Julia was afraid to ask for help and they suffered longer than Anna did. A visit from Sarah’s son was great for her recovery and showed how much we can help our loved ones through hard times. I think this book had a beautiful message about supporting mental illness.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book had a strong message but didn’t preach or speak down to the reader in any way. It was impactful because it was true and raw. Truth tells a stronger message than lectures (thus why Jesus spoke in parables!). Zgheib does a great job of showing us Anna’s story and showing how an eating disorder can hurt an entire family.

This book was true and raw, though it did seem to show the best possible outcome of a situation. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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