The Girls at 17 Swann Street…
About the Book:
Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting portrait of a young woman’s struggle with anorexia on an intimate journey to reclaim her life.
‘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 flavour induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.
‘I tell people I am a dancer. I have not danced in years, though. I work as a cashier in a supermarket, but my real occupation is anorexia.’
This is the first novel I’ve read that deals entirely with anorexia. The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a novel that stretches reader comfort, requires you to stop and contemplate this complicated and devastating disease.
‘I run for eighty minutes each day, build strength for another twenty, keep my caloric intake below eight hundred calories, a thousand when I binge. I weigh myself every morning and cry at the number on the scale. I cry in front of mirrors, too: I see fat everywhere.’
Through Anna’s gaze, we are given the opportunity to understand anorexia from the perspective of both the sufferer and the observer. At the opening of the novel, Anna is checking into a residential eating disorder treatment facility. She has anorexia, and the other girls at 17 Swann Street are either anorexic or bulimic. They stay at the facility until they are signed off as having a healthy BMI, and are mentally ready to approach life with healthy eating habits. Unless they die, attempt suicide, or are deemed too unwell for this type of treatment and need life support intervention from a hospital. It’s a grim novel at times, rather heart-breaking, in the way that all the very truthful ones are. There is of course a huge focus on food throughout the entire novel, because for those with an eating disorder, everything is about food.
‘Popcorn? She interrupts. Her patience and even her fake, thread-thin smile have run out. You would need to eat thirty-five bags a day, or forty-six point sixty-six medium apples to meet your caloric needs. She has succeeded, again, in shocking me into silence. I do not understand what she means. Rather, I do not want to understand what she means by “caloric needs.”’
One of the things I loved the most about this novel was how the girls at 17 Swann Street supported each other. Each was on a very individual journey of recovery, but each also knew how difficult the many stages of that recovery was, and they were incredibly supportive of each other. It was refreshing to read a novel about women supporting other women without exception instead of reading about them competing and hating each other. This aspect, combined with the meticulous accounting of the debilitating and life threatening aspects of eating disorders, makes this an ideal novel for teenage girls and young women. There is so much to draw from within the pages of this novel. A lot of teaching moments. Many moments too when I wanted to weep at the tragedy of what these girls were putting themselves through. The disease was winning, killing them, and they were powerless to stop it. 17 Swann Street was their last stop before death.
‘Anorexia nervosa makes the brain shrink; it cannibalizes itself. It must; it is starved but it must keep working. Grey matter must be sacrificed. My brain must have eaten up the sections where my hope, ambition, dreams were. Thoughts like when, soon, tomorrow are fantasies I can no longer imagine.’
Anna is considered by the other girls as one of the ‘lucky ones’ in that she has an extremely supportive husband who just wants nothing more than for her to recover. The other girls seem to draw a certain measure of strength from witnessing Anna’s relationship with her husband. Despite this novel being told entirely in the first person from Anna’s perspective, we get a real sense of the effect her disease has on her husband, and her father and sister as well. It was very moving to see their relationships unravel and then knit tentatively back together during the treatment phase through to post anorexia. The arrangement of this novel is very present, and we are either with Anna in the moment, or we are caught within her reflections on her past: everything from her childhood, her former relationships, her marriage – from the early days through to the most recent – and her former career as a ballet dancer. All of this is aimed at us getting a sense of why Anna has anorexia, but it’s also to help us understand who she really is, that she is more than anorexia. It was interesting to see how Anna’s reflections differed from her husband’s though. Take this example of a recent holiday they went on, where Anna remembered eating a crate of ripe strawberries and seeing a volcano covered in strawberry fields. Her husband’s recollection is vastly different:
‘I remember Costa Rica. I remember seeing an old lady walk toward me and realizing it was you. I remember the day you finally wore a dress and the little boy who saw you and cried. I remember stopping at every fruit and vegetable stand I could find. I remember not being able to sleep at night, listening to your heart, praying it wouldn’t stop. I remember Costa Rica, Anna. Do you?’
The power of this novel lies in the telling of each girl’s story. Any girl can end up with an eating disorder, no matter what her background is. Girls with supportive families, loving relationships, a circle of friends, good jobs, shining careers, a higher education; the list is endless. Any girl (or boy) can develop an eating disorder. This is perhaps the most important message of all to come out of this novel. I highly recommend this one.
‘Anorexia is the same story told every time by a different girl. Her name does not matter; mine used to be Anna but anorexia got rid of that.’
Thanks is extended to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Girls at 17 Swann Street for review.
About the Author:
Yara Zgheib is a Fulbright scholar with a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in International Affairs in Diplomacy from Centre D’études Diplomatiques et Stratégiques in Paris. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. Yara is a writer for several US and European magazines, including The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, A Woman’s Paris, The Idea List, and Holiday Magazine. She is the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street and writes on culture, art, travel, and philosophy on her blog, “Aristotle at Afternoon Tea.”
The Girls at 17 Swann Street
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Released on 5th February 2019