15 May Book Review: The Girls at 17 Swan Street by Yara Zgheib
Dr. Donnelly takes a break from business books and turns to the fiction shelf with this review of The Girls at 17 Swan Street by Yara Zgheib. One of our recommended empathy reads, the reviews of these books are designed to draw your attention to opportunities to get to know the stories of other people through fictional accounts of them. For while Anna and Matthias may be fictional, their lives are not.
This may seem like an odd book review for us to be writing here. It’s not a business book, or even non-fiction. Instead, it tells the tale of Anna as she goes through residential treatment for her anorexia. So why are we reviewing it? Because eating disorders are oft joked about, but rarely addressed in productive fashions and everyone who leads or manages or works with people should know more about them.
This book is certainly not a diagnostic tool. If you’re not a mental health professional, you shouldn’t be doing that anyway. What it is, instead, is a deep dive into Anna’s life – her childhood, her marriage to Matthias, her descent into the disease, her fight to fight it – and the lives of several women she interacts with at the residential facility on Swan Street in St. Louis. We meet characters who lose their battle, ones who are the therapeutic professionals helping Anna reclaim herself, ones who become sisters to her in this weird diseased landscape, and, through her husband, we see the toll it takes on loved ones.
When it comes to “empathy reads”, I can’t remember another I read recently that fit this category so strongly. Statistics demonstrate that while it is likely you know someone who struggles with an eating disorder, you most likely don’t know anyone who has gone to treatment for it. Not only is the shame around this family of diseases still so culturally strong in the West, our general relationships with food and bodies prevent honest conversations. I will not go on my anti-diet industry rant here – see our reviews of Dietland for that – but this is at the crux of our ability to be in relationship with people well.
In terms of literature, the prose is gripping and the structure of the book is strong. The author makes sure to place you in the appropriate time period before unveiling the newest piece of the story, as there are time jumps within this work. I found it heartbreaking but eminently readable and I think you will too.