Impulse by Ellen Hopkins

“Pray

you could somehow stop

the uncertainty, somehow

stop the loathing,

somehow stop the pain.

Act

on your impulse

swallow the bottle,

cut a little deeper,

put the gun to your chest.”

Before you panic about that quote, I’ll explain:  it’s a description of past events, even though in the excerpt I realized it can come off as an order.  Don’t worry! It’s not as bad as you think.

Well, it’s pretty bad.  The novel takes place in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents.  Vanessa, Connor, and Tony have all attempted suicide, and meet in the ward.  Vanessa has bipolar disorder, like her mother, and cuts herself when she cannot cope with her emotions.  Connor, even though he looks like the perfect, all-American star student, feels isolated in his own family, as though he were an object instead of a son.  And Tony has spiraled into the depths of despair after his mentor dies of AIDS.   In the hospital, the three begin the lengthy process of sorting through years of pain and fear, searching for the combination of medication and therapy that will help them emerge into the sunlight again.

The three main characters take turns relating their own experiences in the novel: the speaker is identified at the beginning of each chapter, or whenever the speaker changes.  Since the characters are all so fragile and desperately unhappy, it is (like Hopkins’ other works) a raw, harrowing novel.  I had to take frequent breaks when reading it.  The voices are so gripping that you feel them reach out of the book and suck you in.  I actually found it to be so intense as to be overwhelming.

That said, this is Ellen Hopkins.  That’s her style: she wields her words like a surgeon’s knife, slicing away at any extraneous padding in a story.  There’s no sugar-coating here, that’s for sure.  It’s an undeniably grueling read, but even as I was sickened and horrified about the experiences, feelings, and memories of the characters, there was a part of me that was able to stand back from the story and recognize the skill of the writer.

The three-voice-narrative was especially genius, I think.  Because of the emotionally intense, introspective nature of a person going through a life-threatening emotional crisis, a single narrator could telescope the story in on itself, and make the entire novel too centered around tortured ruminations of the sad mind.  But with three different characters telling the story, Hopkins anchors the story, and keeps it from being an unbroken personal manifesto of misery.

Oh, what can I say here?  The topics are rough: sexual abuse, drugs, self-injury, abortion, and suicide, all described in graphic, but poetic language.  However, Hopkins takes this dark side of the self and humanizes it, makes it understandable.  She also refuses to tie up the story with a neat “happily ever after” bow, too, which is something I really appreciate.  One gets the feeling that, to Hopkins, her audience is street-smart enough not to swallow a syrupy ending.  There’s this underlying feeling of respect for her readers: she speaks to them as though they were adults.  I think this one is definitely worth a read.  (And the ALA thinks so, too: this book is an ALA Best Book winner!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.ellenhopkins.com/

Hopkins, Ellen. Impulse.  New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007. 666 pp.  Ages 16 and up.  And while your 16-year-old is reading it, stick around for the tough questions that may come up.

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Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

“We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers.  We danced with witches and kissed monsters.  We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.”

I debated whether to review this book or not.  I’m still not sure if I’ll leave this post up, or take it down in a few days.  The problem with books covering eating disorders is that a lot of readers migrate to them for their triggering effects, to garner the strength to continue their disordered eating patterns.  I know; I was there.  I lost seven years of my life to it.  I know the books well.  And readers who are seeking this book to further their illness will find it anyway, with or without my review.

This raw, challenging story relates Lia’s struggle with an eating disorder.  Her best friend, Cassie, recently died alone in a hotel room, a victim of a ruptured esophagus brought about by bulimia.  Both girls suffered from eating disorders, and perversely encouraged the behavior in each other.  Now Lia is haunted by Cassie’s ghost, who continues to encourage her in her downward spiral.  On the night of her death, Cassie called Lia thirty-three times, but Lia didn’t pick up, and now the guilt is destroying her.  Lia starves, fights with her family, stays awake miserably at night, trying to stave off Cassie’s image in her mind.  It’s not pretty.

But, with Laurie Halse Anderson’s storytelling prowess, it is skillfully and mesmerizingly told.  I’m reviewing the book because I think it’s different from other eating disorder stories, in that she focuses much more on the mental processes involved with anorexia, as opposed to a triggering recitation of calorie counts and weights.  While those elements are certainly present in the story, the majority of the text is consumed with Lia’s tortured mental machinations, and readers are transported into the nightmarish territory of her brain.

Blank pages, pages of orders that Lia gives herself, such as “Must. Not. Eat” repeated over and over, and her actual thoughts (scratched out in the text, but still legible), followed by what she feels she must think, all combine to create a very realistic portrait of the despair of grief and starvation, without glorifying it.  Like I said, I’ve been there.  It’s not a pretty place, and Anderson is clear with the message.   While I am still ambivalent about the subject matter, because I know it is so often misused by those struggling with similar issues, I am reviewing it because Laurie Halse Anderson is a master storyteller, and this is an excellently written book, that (to me), was careful to avoid exalting the illness.

It ain’t pretty, but it rings pretty true.

Happy Reading! (Actually, with this book, I feel like I can’t really say that, so I’ll amend to: Read it if you must, because it’s the best of all the books out there when it comes to a realistic portrayal of an eating disorder.)

I’d like to close with a quote from another reviewer, Jezebel: “Read without discussion or supervision, Wintergirls could indeed be triggering. But read as part of a conversation — or, perhaps, read by parents and other family members — the book could help make some teens’ worlds a little less dark”.

Author’s website: http://madwomanintheforest.com/

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Wintergirls. Penguin Books: New York, 2009. 278 pp. Grades 10-12.