A French expat battles anorexia at an in-patient facility in the American Midwest.
The plot of Zgheib’s debut novel is very simple: Anna, a 26-year-old, checks into a treatment facility for anorexia at the behest of her beloved husband, who cannot continue to pretend she is not starving. It was not always like this: Once, Anna was a ballet dancer in Paris, where she and Matthias exuberantly fell in love. But then Anna got injured and stopped dancing, and Matthias took a job in St. Louis, and she followed, and now here she is in Bedroom 5 at 17 Swann St., amid a crew of other women, in varying states of distress. Some of them will get better. Some of them won’t. “You’re one of the lucky ones,” one of the girls tells her, shortly after her arrival. “You have a reason to survive.” This turns out to be true. Over her weeks of treatment—time is demarcated with medical reports, helpfully summarizing her weight and mental state—Anna fights treatment and then surrenders to it. Most of the novel is concerned with the details of her recovery, which are wrenching, in a quiet sort of way: the agony of eating half a bagel with cream cheese; the guilt over what she’s put her family through. We also get flashbacks to her life before illness: childhood walks with her father; eating crepes on her wedding day. There are heavy hints of past traumas—a bad boyfriend; a dead brother and mother; a stagnant dance career—but mercifully, Zgheib doesn't spend much time connecting these too closely to Anna’s current state, an acknowledgment that the disease, like Anna, is complicated. And yet the novel’s greatest strength is its simplicity. There is no unusually dramatic backstory; Matthias is kind and relentlessly loving; Anna is, in all but her Frenchness, unexceptional. It's a story we've read before; it's moving nonetheless.
A nuanced portrait of a woman struggling against herself.