Book review: The Girls at 17 Swann Street

5/5 stars.

Trigger warning: I do not recommend this for people who are currently suffering from an eating disorder or are just starting recovery simply because it feels so realistic and relapsing is a thing.

Wow. I’m not sure where to start with this book. It hit me really hard.

As the trigger warning indicates, this is a book about eating disorders. The girls at 17 Swann Street all suffer from a toxic relationship with food. Most of the 7 girls (or women, really) are anorexics but there’s also a couple of bulimics.

We follow Anna, a young French woman who has followed her husband Matthias to the States, where had to move for work. Matthias spends a lot of time at work and Anna is stuck at home in their apartment in a foreign country with little else in her life than waiting for her husband to get home.

Anna used to be a ballet dancer until she had an injury. And of course as a dancer the environment was already extremely competitive and there was a lot of focus on weight.  So she started even then to shrink from being a real person with a full life to being someone who obsesses about food and cutting out more and more from her diet, losing more weight, training harder, and she’s still not good enough. She pushes herself too hard and gets injured.

With the injury and the ensuing move to the US, Anna loses the last bit of herself that was not a food obsession: the joy of dancing and the relationships with her family (to a large extent her husband as well as he’s working a lot). Things start to completely unravel. And at the point where she is admitted to Swann Street she is barely alive, surviving on apples and popcorn, doing extreme workouts and with a BMI of – I think – 15. Severely underweight.

The book switches back and forth between Anna’s past both in France and after the move to the US, and present time in the treatment facility. This switching back and forth and the use of italics gets confusing, as it’s often not clear what time we’re currently in or if someone is speaking. Though it’s possible this is only a problem with the digital ARC that I have received. And once you sort of learn to go with it, it doesn’t put a dent in the power of the story.

And that power lies partly in how real it feels. Compared to Anna I have only “dabbled in” eating disorders, and was never institutionalised for it, but I remember so well the exhaustion, the obsession and compulsive behaviour, how your world shrinks to just thinking about what to eat (or mostly what not to eat). I believe the author must either have personal experience with eating disorders, or that someone very close to her went through something like this, to get it to ring so true.

This book was not only believable, but also incredibly beautiful and touching. Not just in the language but in the sweet moments of fractured hope, and in the strong love between Anna and her family, and the bonds between the women at 17 Swann Street. I found it heartbreaking that these women who are so cruel to themselves and their own bodies are so kind, understanding and fiercely loyal to each other.

There is a lot of sadness and despair in this novel, but there is hope and beauty too – and that for me is what elevates it. It made me cry from both sorrow and joy (even when retelling parts of it to J in a café..), it made me reflect on life and be grateful. It has been a long time since I struggled with anorexia now, but I still remember it vividly. And my relationship with food is still fraught. But I am grateful that I have come this far. That I can genuinely enjoy food (a bit too much at times..) and feel that it nourishes me. I can appreciate the miracle that is my body, appreciate my strength, my health and my mind.

And I am grateful for this beautiful book, for reminding me of the struggle and that despite it there is always hope, love and kindness.

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