The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: February 5, 2019
My Rating: ????????
This book was written in a style that I’ve never come across before. The thoughts of the main character, Anna, flowed almost seamlessly through the narrative, allowing the reader to see the paradox between her internal monologue and her external emotions, a poignant and powerful way to illustrate her struggle with anorexia. The subject of the book’s title, a big pink house at 17 Swann Street, is a residential treatment center that Anna is checked into by her husband, Matthias. Anna is introduced to the other girls there, each battling with her own demons, and the rules they have in place to survive as comfortably as they can: they rejoice in their daily walks and the days they get animal crackers, and they share all mail as a group. Anna exchanges notes with the other girls and falls into a quiet camaraderie. Matthias visits her every night, the two of them making light of the juvenile nature of the arrangement, as they ask permission for him to go up to her room. As the two of them recap their days, we see the pain of Anna’s struggle as she depicts each meal she had to eat, and the parallel fight that Matthias battles as he tries to understand why she would not try to eat while she was home, despite his best effort. The disconnect between this couple that was still so in love, but unable to understand each other’s pain, was heartbreaking, and a symptom of eating disorders that is rarely discussed. Amidst the present day narrative, we additionally learn the story of the couple’s past. We see them sharing ice cream cones and wandering the streets of Paris as they get to know each other, we see the little things that come to define their relationship, like Anna always finishing Matthias’s pizza crusts, and we see the two of them moving to America. The juxtaposition of the way they were able to interact in the past, with the trepidation they face in the present was incredibly well illustrated.
The evolution of Anna’s eating disorder is also explored. In her youth, she was a dancer, involved in an emotionally abusive relationship during which she was convinced that she was not thin enough for her profession. After an injury, she was forced to take time off, and once she and her husband move to America, she is unable to find work. As she stays home alone, day in and day out with no one there to monitor her, she stops eating.
The way that each of these pieces of Anna’s tale are woven together made for an incredibly compelling read. The story of Anna, her relationships, both with food and with her family, and the cycle of commitment to recovery and subsequent relapse made my heart ache, and my hands keep flipping pages. The level of emotion Zgheib was able to withdraw through her succinct style of writing was impressive and powerful. This is definitely a worthy read, the topic is heavy, but I think that this type of depiction of anorexia is so important for people to understand. It contrasts completely with the enormity of this homemade Funfetti Layer Cake, packed full of rainbow sprinkles, and covered with a rich chocolate frosting (stolen from a separate cake recipe).