When I lived in Baltimore, I took Russian in college for two years. Unlike many of my fellow learners, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One benefit was working with a language tutor. Mine was a young woman named Helen. We got friendly and occasionally hung out together. Once, we went shopping at the mall. It was then I first began to suspect that there might be a problem. Helen was willowy, slender, with big, brown eyes and gorgeous dark hair. She could have grabbed anything off the rack and worn it without having to think about it. And yet, here she was, spending two hours trying on skirts in various shops, never quite satisfied with how she looked. Not with how the skirt looked on her, but how she looked in the skirt. In the end, she put a couple of things on hold, but told me later she never went back to pick them up.
Another time, she very excitedly confided in me that she hadn’t had any food at all that day but had been running on cappuccinos alone. The caffeine kept her going, and in her mind, the froth and milk provided all calories she needed for whatever she was doing. Uncomfortably munching on my Chinese food, I wondered how she managed to dance and work out like she claimed she did on basically nothing but water and air.
When Anna collapses in the bathroom of the apartment she shares with her husband, Matthias finally realizes that he needs to be the one to seek help. This help is to be found at 17 Swann Street, a live-in facility for women with eating disorders. Told from Anna’s point of view, the novel takes the reader by the hand and leads you up close to the faces of these women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, who at some level know that things are not well and yet cannot bring themselves to admit that they are not in control of their lives at all.
If you have never lived with or next to a person with an eating disorder, this behavior may seem strange and hard to understand. Why would someone not be able to see what damage they’re doing to their body, to their relationships? Meeting Anna, Emm, Valerie, and the other residents of 17 Swann Street will give the reader reasons, situations, and circumstances, reveal the struggles, triumphs and failures, the denial, shame, and secret hopes of those who have lost their own voices to their disease. The book is written in a straight-forward manner: as Anna fights to save herself and her marriage, the reader is drawn along; pity is neither necessary nor wanted, empathy is. This novel is a sensitive guide to Anna’s journey. I found it spellbinding and recommend it highly!
Yara Zgheib is not new to writing; in fact, she is rather prolific and quite eloquent. Despite this, nobody seems to have bothered to interview her yet. You can read her own blurb on her book here and find more of her writing at Womanscape.
“The Girls at 17 Swann Street” is published by St. Martin’s Press. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. All views, unless otherwise stated, are my own.