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Literature / Wintergirls

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"Who wants to recover? It took me years to get that tiny. I wasn't sick; I was strong."

"I failed eating, failed drinking, failed not cutting myself into shreds. Failed friendship. Failed sisterhood and daughterhood. Failed mirrors and scales and phone calls. Good thing I'm stable."

Wintergirls is a 2009 fiction novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. It follows Lia Overbrook, a long-term sufferer of anorexia and self-harm, who indulges more and more in these unhealthy addictions after hearing that her estranged (and equally troubled) best friend, Cassie, died alone in a local hotel... the very same night Lia ignored her calls for help. 33 of her calls for help. Falling deeper and deeper into despair, and convinced she's being haunted by Cassie's ghost, Lia must balance her compulsive need to starve and cut her body with the never-ending struggle to keep her family ignorant of just how sick she really is.

The book was a hit and went on to earn both critical acclaim and controversy. Best known for its intimate, graphic take on extremely sensitive issues, Wintergirls is at times abstract, at times gruesome, and does not shy away from the ugly and destructive effects of its subject material. For all that, and much to the author's dismay, Wintergirls is held up in certain circles as the pro-anorexia bible, its self-destructive and deeply disturbed protagonist an inspiration rather than a warning.


This book contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Cassie's father is definitely guilty of some pretty bad emotional abuse to his daughter - Lia notes Cassie tended to have explosive tantrums because of her father's constant scolding of her as a kid, and his reaction to her anguish over her beloved pet mouse dying was to tell her to stop crying because she was interrupting his football game. Dr. Marrigan also mentions that the Parrishes had a huge fight with Cassie before she flipped out and fled to the motel where she died.
  • Advanced Tech 2000: In her head, Lia refers to the bathroom scale in her house as the "Blubber-O-Meter 3000".
  • The Aloner: Lia. She has no social life whatsoever, no friends beyond her nine-year-old stepsister, and abuses her fragile medical history to sleep away sessions in the nurse's office or flunk school altogether whenever she can.
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  • Big Sister Worship: Emma adores Lia, and their loving relationship is probably the purest thing in Lia's life.
  • Blood Oath: As kids, Lia and Cassie swore to always be friends using berry juice to supplement actual blood. Years later, they swore a real one on a snowy midnight: Cassie swore she'd be skinny and hot and free to do whatever she wanted, and Lia swore to be the skinniest girl in school. They made it a bet, then agreed to be the skinniest together. One of Cassie's last thoughts was that Lia won.
  • Book-Ends: Cassie died in Charlie and Elijah's hotel; Lia retreats there at the climax and very nearly follows in Cassie's footsteps.
  • Bowdlerise: On page 115, when Lia's therapist asks her what words are in her head, Lia thinks "pissed, pig, hate". Some editions of the book change "pissed" to "fury".
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: Played with. Elijah abandons Lia at the climax at the book in Charlie's hotel, but he has good intentions - he realizes there's no way he, in good faith, can let her go with him, since it'd be enabling her to run from her problems.
  • Broken Ace:
    • Cassie was a model student who actively participated in sports and theatre, but suffered from bulimia, alcoholism, self-esteem issues, and was always fighting with her parents. Until the moment of her death, she was pretending everything was fine at school, while feeling dead inside and hating herself for dumping her best friend Lia, but not being able to apologize to her until she was in the middle of a drinking binge. When Lia didn't answer after 33 calls, Cassie continued binging, purging, and drinking until her esophagus ruptured and she died alone on the bathroom floor of her motel room.
    • Lia's mother Dr. Chloe Marrigan is a genius cardiologist and surgeon, but her family life isn't so great. In college, she had a Shotgun Wedding to Lia's father and spent several years in a loveless marriage with him before finally getting a divorce. Her only daughter has a troubled relationship with her and doesn't even want to live with her. Currently, she lives alone and her house is covered in half-hearted attempts at redecoration.
  • Broken Bird: Lia and Cassie both, suffering from anorexia and major self-esteem issues. Cassie in particular had to contend with a three-ring circus of abusive and controlling parents, rejection by her peers, and failing grades.
  • Broken Pedestal: Lia's attitude towards her distant father. She'd still rather live with him and his new family than her mother, though.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: Lia notes this as she tricks her family into thinking she's in recovery. Though Lia does manage to fool a few people, she secretly hates herself even more for having to resort to more and more lying. So Lia avoids eating to stop feeling depressed, but she's depressed because she avoids eating.
  • Consummate Liar: Lia becomes this as she keeps tricking her family into thinking she's recovering from anorexia.
    • Using some clever tricks, such as tampering with scales and inflating her BMI, Lia successfully fools her father and stepmother into thinking she's in recovery. Lia's stepmom still has her doubts, and her mother isn't fooled for a second.
    • Lia introduces herself to Elijah using her stepsister's name, not wanting to reveal that she is the "Lia" Cassie was talking about in her last moments. She gets busted by her own mother at Cassie's funeral.
  • Cool Big Sis: Despite keeping an emotional distance from everyone else in her life, Lia is very close to her younger stepsister, Emma.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Cassie. As brutally described: her esophagus rips open after drunkenly binging and purging for two days, sending her into shock and killing her. Lia's mother outright tells her that she "died in terror and she died alone", even lampshading the trope with "It is an awful way to go".
  • Dainty Little Ballet Dancers: Lia is a former ballet dancer who has always had a small, waifish figure even before her bout with anorexia.
  • D-Cup Distress: In fifth grade, Cassie had a growth spurt and her breasts grew large enough to need a bra. She was sexually harassed by the boys and ostracized by the other girls.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The entire novel is one slow crossing for Lia, culminating in her cutting herself into a coma and preparing to either run away or kill herself.
  • Don't Split Us Up: Lia's mother, more and more certain that Lia is not getting better at all at her father's place, wants Lia to move back in with her. One of the reasons Lia objects to this is that she wants to live with her stepsister, Emma.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Downplayed, but it's definitely there.
    • Cassie's death was exacerbated by alcohol.
    • Lia mentions that a rumor spreads throughout the school that Cassie died of a heroin overdose. She hesitates to correct the rumor, since she's unsure if it's better or worse than Cassie's actual cause of death.
    • Lia nearly dies towards the end, in part due to an overdose of sleeping meds.
  • Dying Alone: Cassie died alone in a hotel. Narrowly averted by Lia, who almost echoes Cassie's death in the same way, but doesn't go through with it.
  • Education Mama: Jennifer wants only the best opportunities for Emma, pushing her into sports, violin, and French while she's still in elementary school.
  • Enmity with an Object: Lia hates the bathroom scale she has to weigh herself on every Tuesday to prove to her family that she's gaining weight, calling it the "Blubber-O-Meter 3000". She tampers with it to make it look like she weighs more than she actually does, while privately keeping track of her real weight using an undamaged scale in her room.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene in the kitchen establishes the characterization of Lia and her family.
    • Jennifer breaks the news about Cassie's death to Lia and shows concern about her stepdaughter's physical and mental well-being, while still getting ready for work and making sure Emma gets ready for school. She's juggling two children, housework, and a job, and she's also a Slave to PR.
    • Lia insists that she's fine even after hearing about Cassie's death and refuses Jennifer's offers of toast or frozen waffles, instead saying she'll eat some cereal. She dumps most of it down the drain after Jennifer and Emma leave the house, instead opting for a handful of raisins and almonds, a pear, and her medication. Clearly she's troubled, but doesn't feel comfortable sharing how she feels with Jennifer.
    • David isn't there because he's at an early meeting, but his absence shows that he's not a great family man, especially during a time like this when his daughter's best friend has just been found dead.
    • Chloe isn't there either, but Lia comments that she prefers talking to her ex-husband David over the phone because face-to-face takes too much time and usually ends in screaming, implying an acrimonious divorce.
    • Emma is a Cheerful Child who happily waves to Lia as she goes out the door. She's also having big expectations placed on her by her mother, who drives her to school early four mornings a week for violin lessons and conversational French.
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: Emma isn't that good at math and has trouble with long division. After a long, painful study session with her mother Jennifer, Lia cheers up Emma by whispering to her that "long division is a stupid poophead".
  • Good Stepmother: Jennifer. Lia has a complex, but much better relationship with with her stepmother than she does with her biological mother. Although Jennifer can be mildly insensitive at times and doesn't really understand Lia all that well, she sincerely cares about Lia and wants to help her get better.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: After dumping Lia as a best friend and having a huge fight with her parents, Cassie ran to a motel where she went on a drinking binge. In the throes of desperation, she tried to call Lia, who ignored her because she assumed Cassie just wanted to hurt her more. That night, Cassie ended up drinking herself to death.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: Lia, who's given to deep self-loathing. She keeps tricking her family into thinking she's on the mend, when her anorexia and depression just keep getting worse.
  • Last Disrespects: Some of the yearbook staff who believe the rumors that Cassie died of a heroin overdose want to make her memorial page as small as possible, a quarter panel in the back of the book with the local hardware store, insurance agency, and florist.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Lia pushes everyone away from her except for her sister Emma.
  • Madness Mantra: An entire chapter is filled with nothing but the words "Must. Not. Eat." over and over again. The last one of them is written in bold text.
  • Mama Bear:
    • Jennifer for Emma, to the point she delivers a "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Lia after Emma is traumatized by catching Lia slicing herself up in the bathroom. Jennifer tells Lia that, while she loves her as if she were her own, she will not let Lia destroy her daughter.
    • Chloe tries to be one to Lia, who viciously resists it, but Chloe tells Lia that if her weight keeps dropping, she'll pull strings to have her put back in the hospital, much to Lia's outrage.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Elijah is arguably a gender-flipped deconstruction of this. Although he's a mysterious and somewhat unreliable new presence in Lia's life, his passion for life is exactly the influence Lia needs and his actions at the end help her to realise what she wants is to live.
  • Mood-Swinger: Lia notes that Cassie was moody even when they were little kids and would have explosive temper tantrums at little provocation.
  • Morality Pet: Emma, Lia's stepsister, is the most positive influence in her life and the person she dotes on the most. Which makes Emma being the one to catch Lia slashing herself into a bloody coma all the more heartbreaking.
  • My Greatest Failure: She spends the entire novel blocking it out, but Lia ignoring thirty-three of Cassie's calls on the night that she died haunts Lia, literally and figuratively.
  • My Nayme Is: Lia's name is a homophone/variation of the more common "Leah".
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: When Cassie was drinking herself to death in a motel room, she tried to call Lia 33 times, but Lia was still angry at her since Cassie had, months earlier, broken off their friendship and blamed her for everything that went wrong in her life.
  • Never My Fault: Cassie is very guilty of this. Lia goes in the opposite direction.
  • No Antagonist: Lia's own twisted psyche drives much of the conflict, manifesting Cassie's "ghost" as a persisting malignancy that pushes Lia further and further to go the same way.
  • No Sympathy: When Lia and Cassie were in fourth grade, Cassie's pet mouse died and she was heartbroken. Her father's only reaction was to tell her to stop crying because he would put the corpse in the trash after he finished watching his football game.
  • Obsessed with Food: Lia, though the usual spirit of the trope is inverted because she's obsessed with avoiding food rather than eating it. In her case, she's eating as little calories as she possibly can and constantly trying to force herself to stop thinking about being hungry all the time.
  • Parents as People: Each of the adult figures in Lia's life are shown to be flawed, but very human characters who want the best for Lia.
  • Percussive Therapy: When Lia can't stop thinking about Cassie, she bakes a gingerbread cookie shaped like her and smashes it with the rolling pin until it's a pile of dust.
  • Really Gets Around: Lia's father cheated on her mother with at least four different women before they got a divorce.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Jennifer gives one to Lia just before the climax of the book over how Lia's lies have damaged her family, and how Lia's determination to destroy herself has hurt Emma. It's one of the few times Lia's stunned into silence, unable to come up with any excuses.
    • Cassie herself gives Lia an even more cruel and vicious one in the psychiatrist's office later that day: she outright calls Lia fat and ugly and insinuates that her own parents don't love or want her. Though considering Cassie is dead, it's more like Lia is giving this to herself.
    • Lia blasts her father for repeating the same pattern with Jennifer he did with Chloe and angrily points out that even though he's noticed she doesn't eat, he only knows because of Jennifer - he's never home.
  • Rule of Three: Lia is admitted a total of three separate times to New Seasons, a clinic for patients with eating disorders. Her third stay is when she actually tries to get help, cooperate with the doctors, and put her life back together.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!:
    • Emma's basketball team is sponsored by her mother's bank; Jennifer gets the coach to give her daughter more time on the court by threatening to pull the sponsorship if Emma doesn't play enough. Emma is completely unaware of this.
    • During a fight about her weight, Dr. Marrigan point-blank tells Lia that she's personally operated on some of the best judges in the country. If she needs to pull strings to get Lia back into the hospital, she'll do it.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: Elijah backs out of his deal with Lia and drives off alone on Christmas Eve night, knowing that taking her with him would be an absolutely horrible idea. Lia doesn't hold this against him and, in a crucial moment, very positively interprets the note he left behind for her.
  • Self-Harm: Lia is addicted to it, viewing it as the only way to expunge all the dirt inside of her. She started doing it in middle school as a way to deal with the pain of puberty and her parents' divorce.
  • Ship Tease: Lia and Elijah have a little, but it doesn't really amount to anything because Lia is really not in a position in her life where she has time or energy to think about romance.
  • Shown Their Work: Anderson did her homework for this novel.
    • Lia's twisted self-image, meticulous cataloging of every piece of food or drink she consumes, erratic desire to "purge" the filth inside of her through cutting, rigid mental suppression of hunger, and delusional insistence that the thinner she gets, the stronger she'll be are all very true to life symptoms of anorexia sufferers.
    • Dr. Marrigan describes what happens to the body of a bulimia victim as they die in excruciating medical detail. On top of that, it's excruciating accurate medical detail; what Dr. Marrigan describes is really what happens to bulimics.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Lia's parents had one when her mother realized she was pregnant. By the time Lia was born, they couldn't stand each other.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Rumors fly around the school regarding Cassie's death that she was murdered, hung herself, died of a heroin overdose or worse. Only Lia finds out the truth: her esophagus ripped open when she was binging, purging, and drinking in a motel room, alone.
  • Sleepy Head: One consequence of Lia's anorexia is having zero energy because of how little she eats. She spends much of her time at school sleeping in the nurse's office.
  • Slave to PR: Jennifer is obsessed with maintaining her image of being a perfect wife, mother and accountant at the bank she works at, which extends to pushing her daughter Emma into various extracurricular activities. The novel opens with Jennifer crumbling the edges of the cookies she's taking to Emma's school so they'll look homemade instead of store-bought.
  • Soap Punishment: A self-inflicted one after Lia eats a bunch of cookies and cupcakes at the elementary school bake sale, can't force herself to vomit them back up, and gargles with liquid soap to punish herself.
  • Start of Darkness: Cassie began starving herself after going away to drama camp and meeting girls who were doing it. She started making herself sick after meals, and Lia, though initially concerned by this behaviour, began trying it too (while good at staying thin, Lia was actually terrible at puking and forewent it entirely). Years later, Lia crashed her car (with Cassie inside) after an extensive fasting session, and was institutionalised by her parents when the full scope of the truth came out, while Cassie got away scot-free. Instead of making an effort to recover, Lia doubled down on her bad habits.
  • Supreme Chef: Ironically, Lia's pretty good at cooking and baking. She makes muffins and an omelette for her mom, and bakes Christmas cookies for Emma.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: After coming very close to a full-blown Downer Ending, Lia is able to pull herself together after running away on Christmas Eve and finally begins making a genuine turn for the better. The book ends on a hopeful note, with Lia repairing her frayed relationship with her family and realizing that she does truly value her life.
    I am beginning to measure myself in strength, not pounds. Sometimes in smiles. I am thawing.
  • The Reveal: Cassie's cause of death, though spoiled very casually on Wikipedia, is a driving point of the story. Lia learns from her mother, a doctor, that Cassie succumbed to bulimia, compounded by a lot of vodka and pills, and died in a very painful manner. In medical-mode, she goes on to describe exactly how it happened and what it did to her. It isn't pretty.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: One of Lia's few hobbies is knitting. Instead of buying new yarn from a craft store, she buys old sweaters from thrift shops and unravels them to knit them into the shawl she's making.
  • Tough Love: Lia's on the receiving end of a lot of it. When attempts to reach Lia about her anorexia don't work, people have to start resorting to more drastic measures. This includes giving her a "The Reason You Suck" Speech about how she's damaging the entire family with her constant lying about her anorexia. At the end, all of this tough love finally manages to get through to Lia, especially after she realizes that she's hurt Emma and that she needs to be better.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Cassie to Lia, who introduced her to fasting and is considered such by Lia's parents, and also Lia to Cassie. The latter is especially interesting, as Lia paradoxically encouraged and discouraged Cassie's bad habits, wanting her friend to get better, afraid that she'd be left alone if Cassie did, and being just as guilty of them herself.
    • Cassie herself cited this as her reason for calling their friendship off, blaming Lia for everything that went wrong in her own life when her parents caught wind of her purging; she claimed Lia was to blame for her failing grades and cutting school, generally dragging her down. Lia quite justifiably considers this bullshit.
  • Undignified Death: Cassie died alone in her motel room from a rupture of the esophagus, caused by repeated binging and purging in a very short period of time.
  • Weight Woe: Very much Played for Drama. Anorexia is a main theme of the novel and given the gravity it deserves.
    • Also played with for Jennifer, as while she's very concerned that Lia is losing weight again, Lia notes that she also pays very close attention to what Emma eats because she thinks Emma is starting to get fat.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Cassie dumped Lia after deciding she was a bad influence; they didn't speak for six months, and then Cassie died. Although they consider the death a tragic one, Lia's parents were pretty happy that Cassie called off their friendship. Lia, though bitter enough about how Cassie ended things to turn a deaf ear to 33 back-to-back calls from her ex-best friend, never really got over it and spends a lot of time looking up memories of them together online.


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