Wednesday, September 15, 2021

TBR Challenge: Yara Zgheib - The Girls at 17 Swann Street

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.

Comment: This month the theme for the TBR challenge is "unusual" and my interpretation of it was quite simple, I chose a book with a theme I don't usually pick. After a review, I got interested in the story of a young woman trying to go through a treatment for her anorexia. I expected a dramatic but heartfelt story of this woman's journey but the result wasn't as good as I imagined.

Anna is a young woman, who happens to be a ballerina, and following an injury, she isn't able to return to her previous position. She copes by starting a diet but things soon get out of control. Besides this, her beloved husband has an opportunity in the US and they leave France without knowing many people which, added to the fact Anna can't seem to find a position with any company, makes her feel depressed and doubting her skills. As time goes by and a merciful job doing something she doesn't like is the only option, the element Anna can control is food and that is how she reaches a point of almost no return, thus ensuring she is admitted to the house of 17 Swann Street, where she hopes to find a plan. But will she be able to defeat her demons and accept help?

I was quite keen on reading this book as soon as the idea of it was shared somewhere and the person's opinion made me want to try it for myself. I have not been ill with anorexia nor have I know close friends/family who were but it's a strange enough illness to make one curious, and knowing how harmful it can be and how definitive it can become if not treated makes me even more worried on how should I behave with someone would have it. I imagined this book would tell us the story of the protagonist on how she gave in to the mental idea which would distort her perception of her body and how could she try to become healthier.

First, I was a little disappointed the tactic was to insert background issues through flashbacks. We don't follow Anna's journey from the moment she becomes ill, we start when she admitted at the treatment house and see how she goes on to have therapy and help in becoming better. This is fine, but I expected more drama from seeing Anna experiencing things - even though this is first person narration and I tend to dislike it - and not just being told about it because she thought while something triggered that memory.

Then, the writing style was just so.. adverse, in my opinion, for the type of story being told that I feel the author didn't use the best tools to convey her message. Due to her choices, the graphic text had many sections in italics, others in current texts, all dialogues and exchange of information weirdly punctuated in the page that I simply didn't enjoy reading this. The content wasn't as great as I imagined, it was so focused on her emotional state which is understandable, but in such a tragic way (I felt more pity for the state of things than for Anna as a person), that added to the writing style of just popping up Anna's possible thoughts everywhere alongside with flashbacks, made the story be too compartmentalized and not fluid nor engaging.

I kept reading but it wasn't a great time. I know the theme isn't easy so when I say "great time" isn't in the sense this should be funny or cute, but that it should have been easier for me to sympathize, to feel a connection to Anna and to why she went from a healthy dreamy girl to someone with possibly fatal disease. It is true we have this information, we do learn how things happened but it's all secondary, told to us, we don't see it happen and I feel the author lost a good opportunity here.

With Anna in the house (whose address is repeated too many times to count) there are more girls with anorexia or bulimia and the caretakers, medical experts... I felt everyone was the symbol for something Anna has to learn/see in order to deal with her own issues. I don't thing any other character, including her husband who never stops loving or wanting to help her, are truly well characterized nor do we feel they matter that much. The words are there but I think there's a lack of structure in how the story is presented for this to feel more important.

Some readers have commented that from the moment Anna accepts her condition and wants to try, her "recovery" is too quick. I can't really comment, perhaps it's true thinking about how mental change is so hard, even more than the physical one, but it does feel as if it was all a matter of moving on from traumas of the past. What I can say is that the end result was not as satisfactory as I wanted and the book ended up being only average to me.
Grade: 5/10


  1. Sorry this wasn't a winner for you. I'm not the biggest fan of first person pov either, if you don't feel a connection to the narrator, very hard to get into the story.

    1. Hello! True, 1st person isn't my favorite.
      The writing style in general wasn't one I liked much here; it's the old story of the premise being great but the execution...