Thursday, May 14, 2009

You can't be too rich or too thin

There was a senior in my college dorm when I was a sophomore who was painfully skinny and would disappear periodically, but (I am old enough that) I had never heard of anorexia nervosa. I have no recollection of her in an eating situation. And, while I know a little bit more about the condition now, nothing I know prepared me for Laurie Halse Anderson's terrifying Wintergirls. Before the start of this novel, Lia passed out at the wheel of a car and -- her condition finally detected -- ended up in a residential treatment center. Her best friend, and co-dependent anorexic, Cassie shuns her following her release. One night, Lia gets call after call (33 in all) from Cassie which she ignores. The next day, Lia learns that Cassie died in a cheap dive hotel room, all alone.

Thus, Lia's descent begins. Those around her believe her to be recovered from her eating disorder, but -- since we are privy to her thoughts -- she's only doing a terrific job of hiding it. (If anything, that is my complaint about the story ... how could all of the adults not see?) Now, Lia feels haunted by Cassie -- Lia witnesses her getting up out of her coffin -- and more in need of the control that not eating and cutting afford her. She spirals down until her young stepsister Emma sees her nude and with blood running down her body. At this final crisis, Lia finds herself at the hotel where Cassie died, and she makes a decision to live.

This is riveting stuff! One of those books where you talk back: Lia, what are you doing? It seemed utterly authentic; I wonder if a teen with anorexia would find it so (if she could read it and acknowledge its message). I think this kind of emotionally raw book is so much more powerful when you hear the voice in your ears, and the narrator, Jeannie Stith, portrays Lia beautifully. She reads in a "good girl" voice that can quickly evolve into a crafty self-confidence in her ability to fool the fools around her or -- equally fast -- deteriorate into a terrified fear and craziness.

Alongside Stith's great performance, though, I've got to discuss the production side of the audiobook. Anderson's text is filled with visual cues about Lia. There are cross-outs and bits that are set aside in another type size. The chapter numbers are the same format as Lia recitation of her weight. For example: In chapter 013.00, Lia says "At 095.00, I will soar." There are parenthetical references to the calories of the food she eats: I take a whole wheat roll (96) out of the basket, and two buttery Brussels sprouts (35) ...."

The audio publisher (correctly) knew they needed to somehow distinguish these cues aurally. But, what they did proved only distracting, not enhancing. There is a muffled tone to indicate the words in a different type size, Lia whispers the calories in a quick tone of aside, and the voice of Cassie (not distinguished in the text) is given an odd, "ghostly" reverberation. The chapter/weight numbers just confused me (and may have confused me while reading ... although I think I'm likely to skip over the chapter numbers when reading ... or suddenly notice them some distance into the book), since I wondered about whether the two numbers were going to converge in some way.

But what I particularly didn't like was the sound chosen to indicate the cross-outs: A non-musical tone is heard while Lia is saying the words that are crossed out in the text. Initially, I thought this was an error of some kind; when it turned up again (and again), I realized that it was deliberate. At this point, I realized that something was different about those words, but I still wanted to figure out what it was exactly. Once I held a copy of the book in my hands, it became clear: the tone is the line crossing out the words. Was this too many steps? Will other listeners go to the trouble to figure it out, or will they just accept it and keep listening? Or, horrors! Stop listening?

So, that leads me to wonder if a book that relies so much on visual clues should be an audiobook. (See my previous posting on the Lincoln "photobiography" with no photos.) I know the people at Brilliance Audio worked hard to re-create this book for listening, and I appreciate that effort. It is almost like there were so many different things that they had to do that the combination of all the elements proved too much. Yet, not listening would deprive you of Stith's masterful portrayal of Lia. Maybe, you should ignore me and listen for yourself.

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