The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

February 6, 2019

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: February 5, 2019

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A ballerina allows herself to be admitted to a facility for the treatment of eating disorders after collapsing. As she meets and gets to know the other girls in the facility, she gains strength from their stories and learns to reevaluate her own body image. Author Yara Zgheib’s debut novel takes readers inside the mind in heartbreaking detail of a person suffering from anorexia but misses the mark on the story level in her first book The Girls at 17 Swann Street.

Anna Proux lives what most people might think is a charmed life. A native of Paris, she meets and marries Matthias, the man she considers her soulmate. They’re happy; they adore one another. Matthias is well respected at work, and Anna is a ballerina with a dance company.

The real battle in their lives rages inside of Anna, however. She fights her crippling insecurity every day, pouring herself into her dancing so she can forget the effects of childhood tragedies and the criticisms from her first love. With those criticisms and her self-doubt dictating her every move, Anna begins to forego eating most meals. Maybe, she thinks, if she can control her food intake, she can reach an ideal weight and everything will make sense again.

Then Anna gets injured, largely due to diminished strength because she hasn’t been eating enough. The role she’d dreamed of getting and the hours of rehearsal she put toward it slip from her grasp. Her refusal to eat gets worse and transforms into anorexia, all without anyone realizing it. When Matthias get an offer to work in the States, Anna believes this could be a new start. She can leave behind all the bad and forge a new life in Missouri with her husband.

Except that the insecurity and memories follow her across the ocean. Despite repeated promises to start eating again, Anna doesn’t. In fact, her daily vigilance of her food intake increases. One night she collapses in the bathroom, and Matthias puts his foot down. Anna needs help, and he refuses to go another day until she gets it.

With the utmost of reluctance, she allows him to check her into 17 Swann Street. The facility looks like any other ordinary house, except that it’s home to several girls who all suffer from some sort of eating disorder. Anna blanches at the rules. She and the girls are expected to eat six meals a day. Privileges like walks outside and visits to town are earned, not a right. And everyone must attend counseling, both group and private. No exceptions.

During her first 24 hours, Anna becomes convinced she won’t survive at 17 Swann Street. The longer she spends time there, however, and gets to know the girls, the more she realizes that the others understand just how much she’s suffering—even if none of them share in explicit terms what drives their own disorders. She also begins to understand the depth of her disease and bit by bit gains the courage to tackle the challenges in her heart so she can regain control of her life.

Author Yara Zgheib delves deep into the character of Anna and shares in relatable prose the mindset of suffering from anorexia. While many books might spotlight a teen character, at 26 years old Anna is far past the age of a flighty young woman. This gives her anorexia more time to secure its grip on her and challenges readers to reevaluate any preconceived notions they might have. Eating disorders don’t discriminate against anyone.

Less successful is the story on the mechanical level. While Zgheib showcases with ease Anna’s emotional plight, the story itself doesn’t hold too many surprises. The book feels more like a series of diary entries rather than a novel with a trackable story arc. Zgheib’s tone almost gives away the answer to the question of whether Anna will begin a significant recovery from her anorexia. A few moments seem to teeter on the “will she/won’t she” edge, but those moments don’t come often enough.

Anna’s struggles and the revelation of the source of her eating disorder will endear her to readers, no doubt. She’s the strongest element in the book, however; readers really don’t get to know much about the other girls in the house, which is a shame because their stories seem as much if not more compelling than Anna’s own.

Readers who want to understand the daily struggles of an anorexic person will want to get this book, but otherwise I recommend they Borrow The Girls at 17 Swann Street from their public libraries.