Review: “The Girls of 17 Swann Street” by Yara Zgheib

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.

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Review: “Ohio” by Stephen Markley

“Do you ever review fiction?” my husband asked the other day. As a matter of fact, I do (and have, here, here, here, and here). It just seems to be an easier task to get hold of good non-fiction. There must be a LOT of reviewers vying for the approval lists for fiction titles. Sometimes, I get lucky. And sometimes, I get very lucky. “Ohio” is one of those latter instances of a lot of luck. I may be having a bear of a time finding employment, but at least the reading list stays interesting.

“Ohio” is the debut novel of author Stephen Markley, a man so mysterious that his biography contains less factual content than the first two sentences of this post. I would love to know why he decided to set his story in the fictional midwestern town of New Canaan (for fact lovers: there is a Canaan, Ohio, although I cannot say how much or if at all it has influenced the description of the setting in the book). I live only one state over, however, and many of the problems of the area more or less affectionately named “the Rust Belt”, like dying industry and shrinking agriculture, apply across the swath of the upper Midwest.

The novel drops us into a memorial parade for a young soldier, a son of New Canaan, killed in action only a handful of years after high school graduation. Ah, you think to yourself, this is about the dead kid! It could have been, but it isn’t. The next chapters introduce us to people from Rick’s circle, both close and not so close. As each character has his or her story told, the voice changes accordingly. If you are easily confused by storytelling techniques such as this, you’ve been warned. Aha!, you might exclaim, it’s about something that connects all these kids! Definitely warmer. There is indeed a common thread here, at first barely perceptible, but naggingly present, even if its true meaning is not revealed until much later.

There is also a character study here, although it’s not of people, it’s of a town. Sure, you nod, there are lots of points to New Canaan that I recognize. And you will, as I did, but again, don’t take things at face value here. This is not about The Town Next Door, so to speak, but goes much deeper. New Canaan is a place that breeds its own kind of horror and tragedy, and what will hook you in and make you stay with the narrative until its breathtaking conclusion is the realization that, perhaps, nobody who has spent any real time in this town gets away unscathed – not even minor characters.

Adjectives like “breathtaking,” “heartstopping,” and the ever-overused “stunning” give me goosebumps, and not for a good reason, but where “Ohio” is concerned, they are not only applicable but true. When I finished the book, I felt as if someone had clonked me in the head with a shovel: I was unable to do anything but sit there and breathe, until I had collected myself. That is why “Ohio” is hands down THE best novel I have read this year, and why you should not miss it when it comes out in August!

“Ohio” is published by Simon & Schuster. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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