The UK Responds to WINTERGIRLS

I was talking to some friends last weekend about how much pain reviews can cause. Even the good ones can hurt because writers are mostly neurotic and we will find the phrase or the one word that is less than complimentary and then we obsess about that word until we’ve driven ourselves into a right, old funk.

And then I received word about my latest review from England.

I will never whine about a review again. Ever. Because after this one? I’m never going to read another review. I’m just going to reread these incredible words that Melvin Burgess, one the most significant YA authors in UK, wrote about my book. I might set them to music. Or turn them into an epic saga-length, ego-soothing poem.

It does not get any better than this. (Review originally published in the The Observer, Sunday 30 January 2011. )

“There is a great deal of dross written in teenage fiction, nearly all of which seems to end up on my desk. But from time to time, you come across a book that reminds you just why this is such an exciting – and exacting – field.

Wintergirls has many of the obsessions of current teen fiction, including the use of repetition and formatting to convey the state of mind of Lia, the protagonist, and the incredibly intense interior dialogue – so private, so shut off from the outside world, and which makes this particular novel so startling and memorable.

The plot is familiar enough. Our heroine, Lia, already ill, is sent on a vicious downward spiral into anorexia and self-harm by the news that her ex-best friend, Cassie, has died alone in a motel room. The desperation and self-hatred this triggers are set against Lia’s cleverness at hiding it from her separated parents, busy mum (Dr Marrigan), selfish father (Professor Overbrook) and well-meaning but unimaginative stepmother, Jennifer.

Meanwhile, the vengeful ghost of Cassie comes to haunt Lia and does her utmost to convince Lia to follow her all the way to self-destruction.

Lia’s fragile efforts to find a way out of her nightmare seem doomed to failure, but there is hope. There is love – complicated, but genuine, from both parents and stepmother, while her relationship with her little stepsister, Emma, is simple and guileless.

The novel sets a terrific dramatic pace. As soon as we realise that Cassie phoned Lia 33 times the night she died, and that Lia failed to pick up, the danger Lia faces is plain. But it is the raw stylistic power that makes this so memorable. Those clever word games are used to powerful effect, from the endless repetitions of Lia’s self-hating mantras to the crossed-out words that give the lie to her own thoughts.

The true nature of anorexia is made painfully clear. Lia starves herself because it is the only control she has over her disintegrating personality; anyway, why feed something so hateful? She cuts herself not to cause pain, but to let the pain – and the dirt – out. The dirt in this case is, of course, herself. As with the plotting, this fractured and utterly convincing interior monologue is intercut with the rather bored face she presents to the world around her.

And yet, throughout, there is the feeling that if somehow you could only reach in and talk to this girl, you could save her life. It’s an exhausting novel to read: brilliant, intoxicating, full of drama, love and, like all the best books of this kind, hope. It would be rare to find a novel in mainstream adult fiction prepared to pull out the dramatic stops this far, and difficult to imagine one in recent years that was prepared to be so bold stylistically. It’s a book that will be around for many years. It may not be an original piece, as these tricks have been pulled before in teen fiction. Yet it pulls them off with more skill and effect than anything I have ever read.”

Thank you, Mr. Burgess. Thank you very much indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

UK cover                                                                                       US cover

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12 Comments

  1. Kim McCollum-Clark
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Wow! That IS a great review! Makes me want to give his books other try (not a big fan.) I think the reason that review feels great to you, LHA, and even to me, a reader who loves Wintergirls, is that it’s a sign that there can be a communion of meaning across words. What you wrote MADE IT THROUGH. What I read and felt MADE IT THROUGH to another person. Altogether a win for the power of words. Happy writing today in your snowy forest!

  2. Posted February 1, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    GOSH, Laurie. And he’s no slouch in the criticism department, either, so YAY, he likes you, he really likes you!!!

    And actually, even if he hadn’t, we already know you’re beyond cool. ;)

  3. Maine Character
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    That’s an amazing review. I’d go to sleep at night running that last line over and over in my head.

    Thanks for introducing us to him, too – I’m reading through his website and he seems a real class act (and author).

  4. Posted February 2, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Laurie – What a great review! How ironic that one of my students, when we were discussing YA literature, yesterday told me that she is currently reading Wintergirls. I haven’t, but after reading this review, you can bet I will. Currently reading Forge for pleasure. Teaching Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Long live YA lit!!!!!!

  5. Greg Neri
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I’m a huge fan of Melvin’s and now I know he has great taste in reading as well. Bloody great review.

  6. Sarah W.
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    What a great review, but we all knew this book was terrific to begin with. My favorite part is when he writes “It would be rare to find a novel in mainstream adult fiction prepared to pull out the dramatic stops this far, and difficult to imagine one in recent years that was prepared to be so bold stylistically.” So true and the reason I come back to your books again and again is that most “adult” books do not compare! Congrats, Laurie!

  7. Posted February 2, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Lovely! Congratulations, Laurie. Isn’t it interesting that we care so much about opinions? I used to have the urge to respond to reviews! But look at our profession – we sit alone, putting delicate words to paper, never knowing if they’ll connect with anyone, but knowing that they mean so very much to us. When we get a bad review, it’s like being rejected by a lover. Or having our child get beat up at school.

    This is so wonderful – and I love Melvin Burgess too!
    Very happy for you!!!!!

  8. Posted February 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Woohooo! Congrats! What a great thing to wake up to on a chilly morning.

  9. Posted February 3, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    But you so deserve this level of praise, Laurie. And Mr. Burgess might well be echoing the voices of your other UK readers – I’m only halfway through reading it is I have this awkward habit of reading more than one book at a time, so it’s taking me longer. But I L-O-V-E it so far, and I can’t praise you enough.

    And don’t listen to the bad reviews, if there are any out there. I haven’t read all of your books yet, but if the ones I have read (Chains, Speak, and now Wintergirls) are anything to go by, I don’t see how anyone can have a bad word to say about them. You’ve helped – and inspired – an awful lot of people with your writing, (and your blog, and your MAD WOMAN HOODIES) Laurie. Please don’t let the baddies get you down. Because, frankly, they do not know what they’re talking about.

  10. Mander-Rene
    Posted February 5, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    This is a great review. But I woudnt call Lias dad selfish, to me he seemed to be in denial.

  11. Angela♥
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more. This book is frightening, enlightening, as well as entertaining, moving and intoxicating. I used this book to get my son’s friend to stop the eating habits she had had for a while herself (which was no eating habit at all). This book helped me to revisit my high school days when I did the same thing as Lia and my son’s friend.

  12. Posted February 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic! I look forward to reading Wintergirls, and sharing it with my daughters and teen students.

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