Second Star to the Right by Deborah Hautzig

Friday, July 16, 2010

author’s website: Deborah Hautzig
original publication date: August 1981
reissued in 1999 by Puffin Books
appeals to: Young Adult
topic: Eating Disorder (anorexia)
length: 158 pages
overall rating: 3 stars
body image & self perception issue: anorexia

*the back cover*
Leslie Hiller is a bright, attractive, talented teenager who leads a privileged life in New York City. She is also a perfectionist. When she starts something, whether it’s a drawing or her homework, she will not stop until it is truly finished. This time, she has started to diet. And Leslie finds herself becoming obsessed, getting thinner and thinner, until she is forced to realize that her quest for perfection is killing her.

*my review*
There were many things about this book that I liked, and many that I didn’t, but the first paragraph of this book was at the top of things I did like. The book starts, “It’s hard to know where to begin . . . I wonder if there’s even such a thing as a beginning . . .” In terms of a story about a girl with an eating disorder, it was interesting that our narrator couldn’t even define where or when it began. She goes on to describe her life as a normal 14-year-old girl living in New York. However, soon we realize that Leslie is obsessed with how she looks. In fact, by page 12, she is describing herself - 5’5.5” and 125 pounds – and says, “If I were think, my life would be perfect” (p. 12). This becomes her mantra throughout the story.

The major struggle with the eating disorder doesn’t begin there. In fact, the beginning of the problem reminded me of a line in the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada,” where a character says, “I’m on stomach flu away from my goal weight.” That seems like such a crazy statement, but for Leslie, that is exactly how her downward spiral into the eating disorder began. During winter break, Leslie had the stomach flu, and when she realizes that the flu caused her to lose enough weight that her jeans were too big, she is motivated to start (and stick to) a diet. The diet she chooses doesn’t seem to bad at first: healthy food and some sit ups are things we could all try. But she takes it to the extreme, working her way from 45 to nearly 700 sit ups, and restricting her food to what I’d estimate is no more than 500 and probably closer to 400 calories a day.

As the story progresses and her disorder becomes more and more severe, a number of changes happen, both physical and psychological. She stops having her period as her weight falls and falls and falls. Even when people point out how thin she is getting, she doesn’t believe it. At one point (p. 51) she and her best friend Cavett have a conversation that captures how twisted Leslie’s self image is. Basically, Cavett wants to know when Leslie is going to be eating again, and Leslie replies by saying, “When I’m thin enough.” Cavett is shocked and says as much, but Leslie continues to affirm that while Cavett IS thin, she isn’t.

At different places in the book, Leslie comments on her current weight and on her goal weight of 105. The scary thing is that when she reaches her goal and still doesn’t feel thin, she keeps losing. She restricts her food intake even more and soon loses the energy to get through the day. But still, she loses weight. There are sentences scattered throughout the novel that count down the pounds with ticks (for example “100, 99, 98, 97, tick, tick, tick.” p. 63) and still, Leslie’s mantra is “I’ll know when I’m thin enough because I’ll be happy.” (p. 61).

One thing that was strange in this novel is that Leslie didn’t want to be sick, she was willing to go to doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and even to be hospitalized. She just wanted to be thin above all else. When her mother suggests doctors, Leslie goes willingly, even though she knows she is well below the healthy weight for her body. She even agrees to be hospitalized, and yet, she continues to lose weight.

Even though this book was relatively short, I found that it took me a long time to read it. Some places were very slow moving, and others were just difficult to read. Sometimes, there would be paragraphs of Leslie’s thoughts that kind of spiraled around without really making a point, and I kind of got lost during those sections. I didn’t think that they really advanced the plot or added much to her character. And the part I was most disappointed with was the ending. As the end of the book drew closer, I wanted there to be some kind of closure or conclusion, but there really wasn’t. In fact, the book ends with one of Leslie’s thought sequences, and while there were a few good points, it didn’t have enough for me. I even turned the page hoping for a little bit more conclusion! Instead, I found the author’s afterward, and truthfully, that made the best conclusion the book could possibly have had. The afterward doesn’t have spoilers in it, so you could read it at any time, and I think it makes the book so much more meaningful. I’ll leave you with a quote from the afterward:
“Anorexia . . . is not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to be proud of. It isn’t anybody’s ‘fault.’ It’s an illness – a life-threatening illness – and it’s treatable.” (p. 157 – in the afterward)

*short and snappy*
writing: the book was published in 1981, and I think you can feel the age of the writing. It sounds weird, but I really think that the writing style of YA literature has changed a lot in the last 29 years, and this is reflective of its time.
plot: varied – some places were slow, others moved quickly and kept you hooked
characters: frustrating – Leslie really captures the essence of a girl with anorexia, but it is still frustrating to read her flippantly talking about how she just isn’t thin enough – what makes her a bit more likable is the fact that she doesn’t want to be hurting her family and she does make an effort to explain to them that she can’t help her disorder.
judging by the cover: As I was looking for images of the cover, I actually found three. The first is the one that matched the book I read, but the other two paint interesting pictures too!

23 comments:

asamum said...

Great review. I actually picked this up in order to follow #BISPMonth. I have already encountered a teen with food issues in the library, it is nice to have insight into this disorder. Thanks again :D

juliannelefay said...

I liked this book, but I also found it strange that it just stopped. I agree with you about the style feeling dated, the way Leslie thought and spoke just isn't, I think, the way teenagers think and speak today.

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