Yara Zgheib Explores the Importance of Support Systems during recovery in ‘The Girls at 17 Swann Street’

Title: The Girls at 17 Swann Street
Author: Yara Zgheib
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Length: 284 p
Publishing Date05 February 2019

“I do not suffer from anorexia, I have anorexia. The two states are not the same. I know my norexia, I understand it better than the world around me.”

26-year-old Anna is a former Parisian, former ballerina, and former woman with an identity outside of her eating disorder. Somewhere between following her husband to St. Louis and ending up in Bedroom 5 at 17 Swann Street, Anna’s all but disappeared. Her life revolves around food and denial, and not just denying herself food. Both Anna and her husband can only see how the disorder developed since coming to America. What Anna doesn’t want to see is how she’s been trying to erase herself for years.

The story itself is not an original one: dancer develops unhealthy eating habits to get the approval of fellow dancers and a man. Except that’s what Anna only wants to see, and what she only wants to share with her therapist. Through flashbacks, however, both the reader and Anna dig deeper into the root of the trauma that led Anna to this point, which includes wanting to get healthy.

“I am not undernourished. I am starved for a meal I would not have to eat alone. For someone to love me and tell me that I am more than enough, as I am.”

The fellow patients at 17 Swann Street are constantly pointing out to Anna that, unlike so many of them, Anna has a reason to get healthy: her husband. And while it’s easy to dismiss this reason as not the “right” reason (shouldn’t Anna be wanting to get better, to live, for herself?), Zgheib demonstrates how nuanced the recovery process is. For some, like Anna, it’s easy to motivate them to want to get better because they have someone, or something, that they want to get better for.

In others, Zgheib shows the inability for some to function on their own outside of inpatient centers. This is where the title of the book is expertly demonstrated. These women aren’t women: they’re girls who need to remember how to be women, mentally and physically. And still, it is up to each patient to decide what returning to womanhood means (once they’ve achieved and are maintaining a healthy body weight).

“You can’t control your life, love, future, past, but you can choose what you put, or not, in your mouth.”

The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a book that sneaks up on you with its depth. I was incredibly moved, not just by Anna’s story, but by the relationship between Anna and her husband. Anna is doing the hard work: she’s working on undoing years of thinking and acting one way about food. Yet, she’s still cognizant of how hard this (the separation, having had to watch his wife starve, the conflict of not understanding why he wasn’t enough to help her get better) is on her husband. And he does the most important thing anyone can do for someone in recovery or healing from anything: show up.

A surprisingly emotional read, The Girls on 17 Swann Street is a rare look into the relationship dynamics between patients and their partners and just how important they can be in the recovery process.

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