Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dancing With Ana by Nicole Barker

Dancing With Ana by Nicole Barker is a young adult novel that addresses eating disorders.  The story follows 16-year-old Beth and her three best friends -- Rachel, Jenny, and Melanie -- as they embark on a diet that goes far beyond losing a couple of pounds, at least for Beth.  After watching the most popular girl in school at lunch and commenting on her extremely thin figure and the fact that she appears to forgo food and sip only from a water bottle, the girls decide to diet to reach the low end of what they believe to be their ideal weight range.  But diet doesn't mean replacing high calorie, high fat, or high carbohydrate foods with healthier alternatives.  The girls decide instead to go through each day eating as little food as possible, with Beth eating a grapefruit for breakfast, a salad with no dressing for lunch, and barely touching or dinner -- or lying to her mother about eating already.

Beth and her friends have no real need to diet, and it seems other issues in their lives are behind their desire to lose weight.  Melanie and Jenny fall off the diet wagon real quick, but Rachel's home life is complicated by the fact that her divorced mother acts more like a teenager than she does, wearing skimpy outfits and bringing various men home all the time.  While readers get to know a little about Rachel and practically nothing about Melanie and Jenny, Beth is the focus of the story.  And Beth's eating problems appear connected to her father's decision to have an affair and leave Beth, her young brother, and her mother behind.  The only thing that's certain in Beth's life is that she's falling for the boy across the street, Jeremy, who has been a close friend since they were children.  But her problems with food and her excessive dieting threaten their budding romance.
She was ruining a beautiful night, one he had planned just for her.  Why couldn't she just let her diet go for tonight?  And why did it not quite feel like a diet anymore, but more of an obsession?  It was true, she had never officially been on a diet, but her mom had done Weight Watchers, and her aunt was always on some sort of diet.  They would be the first ones to put their diets on hold if there was a special occasion, or if they went out to dinner.  The diet didn't control them.

She was definitely starting to feel controlled.  Instantly, she straightened.  If there was one thing Beth loved, it was her independence and the light feeling she usually carried with her that resulted from knowing who she was and what she wanted out of life.  She didn't like the fact that food was somehow starting to hinder that part of her spirit. 
(page 54)
Dancing With Ana is a quick read -- only 170 pages -- but it really makes you think about the challenges of being a teenager in a society where so much emphasis is placed on being thin.  The media focuses on celebrities with perfect bodies (not mentioning that they are airbrushed to within an inch of their existence), and there are so many commercials and programs focused on weight loss.  I've struggled with weight issues all my life; I even tried to do the little-to-no-food-and-tons-of-exercise diet back in high school and lasted three days.  I was weak, tired, and (it goes without saying) hungry.  I've felt guilty after eating, and I've turned to food when I was stressed, upset, or even bored.  It's a constant struggle, but it's about learning to be comfortable with who you are and not viewing food as a crutch.

A friend of mine in high school struggled with anorexia (she lasted way more than my three days without food), which began with a comment from her father that she was "chubby."  She would go out to eat with her family to the local pizza place and order a small cup of sauce while her father and brother ate slice after slice.  She would leave my house the minute my mother started cooking dinner, and she would jog at least five miles a day.  She lost tons of weight that summer, and I've since lost touch with her, but I pray that she's recovered.

Dancing With Ana takes place over just a few weeks, making it seem a bit rushed and leaving me scratching my head about Beth going from a healthy weight to rib-cage-showing-thin in just a matter of days.  Though the pacing seemed a bit off and the characters less developed than they could be, Dancing With Ana is an engaging book.  I don't know whether teenagers today identify with Beth, Rachel, Jenny, or Melanie, but various parts of the book took me right back to high school.  I really liked the way Barker wrote the romance between Beth and Jeremy, with the clumsiness and innocence of new love.

I also commend Barker for pushing the character of Ana, or anorexia, to the forefront.  This is a book that could be shared between a mother and daughter, generating a dialogue about healthy eating habits and maintaining a realistic and healthy body image.  I plan on sharing it with my daughter when she's old enough, but in the meantime, I've already made it a point to tell her she's beautiful no matter how much she weighs and how weight shouldn't be foremost on her mind as long as she's healthy.  I'm trying to have these conversations with her while she still values my opinion, and books like Dancing With Ana could prove useful.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of Dancing With Ana from the author for review purposes.


Serena said...

Sounds like a good book with a great story.

Darlene said...

Great review Anna. I've got this book in my tbr pile and really need to find some time to get to it.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review Anna! It really is such an important issue, and seems to be affecting girls at a younger and younger age!

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

Hey Anna!

I just found you on Redlady's blogroll. Thanks for the great review.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this book will give young adults a lot to think about. I do wish we could all learn to accept and love ourselves as we are.

Sandy Nawrot said...

These are such important issues, and like you, respect the author for addressing it. It must have been a difficult read. With all this in mind, I love the cover and I love the title. That alone I think would draw me in.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I love the cover. It's very unique. I think I would have issues with the rapid weight loss. That would be very distracting for me.

SUSAN said...

I am so impressed you are able to review so many books. How do you choose which books you are going to read/review....where do you get them all?


Veens said...

I have read good reviews of this one around the blogosphere. It is something I think would give a lot of teens to reevaluate themselves..

Great review, thank you!

Blodeuedd said...

Even if the book was not perfect in every way it sure sounds like a book teens should read.
And you are giving your daughter such a great message

Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds like some great messages for girls to absorb at a young age. thanks for the great review!

Kailana said...

What a cool cover!

Anonymous said...

Eating disorders are so pervasive it seems. I'm glad this book addresses the issues, even if the time-line is rushed.

Jeanne said...

Do you know that "Ana" is a way that anorexics have traditionally personalized their disorder online? One of the things I look for in reviews of these books is whether it could be used by anorexics to get tips on starvation techniques--too many descriptions of what Beth can get by on in a day and you have a "recipe" for those who try to imitate her.

And have you read Anderson's Wintergirls? It's the best book I've ever read on this subject.

Anna said...

~Serena: It was pretty good, and I think it's important that we discuss the issue.

~Dar: Hope you get to it soon. I'm looking forward to your thoughts.

~rhapsodyinbooks: Thanks! It's scary that it's hitting them younger these days.

~A Bookshelf Monstrosity: Thanks! Hope you stop by again some time.

~bermudaonion: Me, too.

~Sandy: The cover drew me in right away. I'm not sure exactly what it has to do with the story itself, but it's nice looking. :)

~Nicole: I asked the author about it, but I haven't heard back from her yet. I'm not sure whether it's medically possible, but I could be wrong. It didn't prevent me from liking the book, though.

~Susan: Thanks! I hope you received the comment I left on your blog. I wasn't able to find an e-mail address to answer you directly.

~Veens: Thanks!

~Blodeuedd: Thanks! I try. :)

~Marie: Thanks!

~Kailana: I agree!

~carolsnotebook: Me, too. It seems we've stopped talking about this issue. I remember hearing more about it years back.

~Jeanne: Thanks for letting me know that. I haven't read Wintergirls yet, but I've heard it's great. The author does go into detail about what she eats each day, so I guess it could be used in the way that you mention. That's really sad, though.