The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

Perhaps it’s just me but naming the main character ‘Anna’ in a story about an anorexic seems tone-deaf…

Yara Zgheib’s novel, The Girls at 17 Swann Street, focuses on a small treatment facility for women with eating disorders and in particular, Anna, an ex-ballerina.

Anorexia is the same story told every time by a different girl.

I chose this book because of the mental health angle. I find the pathology of eating disorders interesting and to a certain extent, Anna provided insight –

Eventually, I also stopped searching. And dairy, and answering my phone. And wearing makeup, but at least I was not fat anymore.

The story highlighted the fact that eating disorders are not purely the domain of teenage girls. Anna is in her twenties and married to Matthias – before she became unwell, they were hoping to have a baby.

Despite the interesting perspective, the book fell short for a number of reasons. Firstly, the opportunity to explore Matthias’s own guilt and complicity in Anna’s condition was skimmed over. Matthias felt partially responsible for Anna’s situation and while logically one might take the view that the person with an eating disorder is ultimately the one deciding what they do or don’t put in their mouth, it is inevitable that family and friends question their role in the situation.

And so she ate nothing and they both ate lies through three years of marriage, for peace, at the occasional cost of no more roller coasters, no more sharing ice cream and French fries.

Secondly, Anna’s recovery progresses relatively quickly and smoothly – the focus is on her calorie intake and changed behaviour at the dinner table, as opposed to the psychological (which is problematic given that anorexia and bulimia are mental disorders with a physical manifestation).

Lastly, the ‘creative’ approach to punctuation – grrrr. I’m not a pedant but the lack of punctuation in this book was irritating and detracted from the scenes where there was dialogue.

If you want to read about eating disorders, I reckon Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly (fiction) and Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness (her memoir – it’s bananas) are better starting points.

2/5 Disappointing.

I received my copy of The Girls at 17 Swann Street from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Before she became ill, Anna’s specialty was Sacher Torte.

16 responses

  1. I had a friend who was anorexic in her twenties following an assault. I was close friends with her when we were teenagers and there was no evidence of it then. Her husband did a great job to pull her through. But yes, definitely a mental disorder.

    • And you can see why someone might develop anorexia after an assault, with so much tied up in feelings of control/ lack of control and body image and what our body portrays to others. From a diagnostic point-of-view, it is often seen after a ‘stressful’ event which, for some people, might be the beginning of high school or university and for others, something traumatic like your friend experienced.

      • Reading it as an arc ebook didn’t help matters because the formatting was a bit all over the place in my copy. The lack of punctuation and breaks meant it was often a block of text. I had to mentally reorganise the page at times just to have it make sense.

  2. Oh dear… too bad. It could have been really good. As for the Sacher Tort… the last time we were in Vienna, we couldn’t get into the hotel to try it, but the Viennese have SO many other amazing pastries, we didn’t feel the least bit deprived!

    • Interestingly, the acknowledgments at the end of the book suggest that the story has a personal link (whether it’s the author or someone she knew) so I’m assuming that she knows that like all mental illnesses, there’s no ‘quick fix’ and that the chances of relapse are high. My understanding is that it takes on average five years to ‘recover’ from anorexia (very different to the character’s six week stay at Swann Street!) – and that obviously follows what is usually many years of disordered eating before anorexia is diagnosed.

  3. I don’t think this is for me. Having read a lot about it in my teens, it would take a lot for me to pick up another book on the subject and as Susan says, this sounds irresponsible. Also the punctuation thing – if it doesn’t work it’s infuriating!

  4. As everyone is saying – irresponsible. I have a friend who developed anorexia in her teens and fifty years later still swings from being overweight to underweight. Her problem has never really been resolved.

  5. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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