REVIEW: Purge by Sarah Littman
Dear Ms. Littman,
We’ve talked about issue books here at Dear Author in the past. A lot of readers prefer to avoid them but I like to read them from time to time, especially since they make up a significant fraction of the young adult genre. Because of personal past experiences, one topic I do seek out is that of eating disorders and teenage girls so when I heard about your novel, I made sure to give it a try.
Janie Ryman is just your average teenage girl. She lives in the shadow of her older sister, who’s the daughter from her father’s previous marriage. She loves to act and received a standing ovation for her portrayal of the lead role in The Diary of Anne Frank. She has a crush on a guy who doesn’t even know she’s alive and even when she does get his attention, it’s not meant to last.
But Janie also has a secret. She binge eats and then vomits shortly after. She doesn’t have a problem though. She has it perfectly under control. At least that’s what she tells herself. Then the secret she’s successfully kept for years is exposed in the most dramatic fashion possible — in front of witnesses at her perfect older sister’s wedding.
Now her best friend won’t speak to her. Her sister is furious at Janie for ruining her special day. And her parents just don’t know what to do. To that end, they send her to Golden Slopes, a facility that treats people with eating disorders. There, Janie finds herself among the Barfers (the bulimics) who have a sort of rivalry with the Starvers (the anorexics). Not unsurprising when the treatment program requires group meals (in which no one can start eating until everyone is present) and one group does everything to avoid showing up while the other just wants to eat everything in sight as fast as they can so they can escape to do their business out of the nurses’ watchful eyes. And of course, in addition to the social dynamics, there are the therapy sessions to deal with.
Janie’s voice is very well done. She’s so convinced that she doesn’t have a problem that even if a reader doesn’t have experience with eating disordered behavior, they will recognize the signs as being similar to an alcohol or drug addiction. Because that’s often how it starts — a small slip here and there, just to tide you by when the stress gets too much, but when left unresolved, it grows and grows until it controls your entire life. So in that sense, Janie’s denial was amazingly well done, especially when she starts trying to find ways to escape the nurses’ notice and fall back to her old behavioral patterns.
I also liked the interactions with the other patients at Golden Slopes. They served as good foils for Janie. On the other hand, I liked the other patients as characters so much, I wish we could have seen more. This book is very much Janie’s story — from her battle with bulimia to the background events that led up to her developing the problem and the crisis that eventually led to her commitment — so I know that wasn’t entirely possible. But at the same time, I think it would have added more.
For example, this is probably one of the rare books I’ve read that actually tackles the topic of eating disordered behavior in boys. Because eating disorders are predominantly associated with girls, the same symptoms that would ring an alarm if exhibited in a girl are completely ignored in guys. Maybe it’s because, as the guys in the book illustrate, the ED behaviors are done in the context of athletics and that somehow makes it acceptable. So I liked the fact that Golden Slopes had male patients — one of whom was categorized as a Starver and the other who has the ED behavior that many people don’t recognize as one (binge eating and then overexercising).
The downside is that because of the focus on Janie and her road to healthy living, we don’t learn more about the supporting cast despite getting some tantalizing glimpses in their lives and problems that led to their being sent to Golden Slopes. Some readers won’t be bothered by this but since so much of Janie’s crisis was the result of social interactions, I expected more from her social interactions with her fellow patients. I realize that might not have fit within the constraints of this book though. You can only fit so much in this many pages, after all.
To that end, I have a hard time assigning this one a grade. I liked it and watching Janie come to grip with her problem was inspiring but I still felt let down by the lack of elaboration about the other patients. This isn’t a book I’d recommend to everyone — its focus and topic isn’t one that’s appealing to every reader — but it talks about an important subject. All things considered, this one’s a C+ for me.
This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon. No ebook.