Was This My Fault? Or, A Review Of Two Books, “Hope and Other Luxuries,” and “Elena Vanishing”


As occasionally happens, I have a book to review.

In fact, two books. One, written by a mother, Clare B. Dunkle, an author of young adult fantasy. The other, written by Claire and her adult daughter, Elena. Both recount the years of Elena’s anorexia.

Clare’s book is called, ” Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother’s Life with a Daughter’s Anorexia.” Elena’s, ” Elena Vanishing: A Memoir.”

It’s tricky to review these books because there are two stories to keep straight. Clare’s is long. Anorexia is a painful disease, its sufferers hard to like. But I find myself compelled to try because, although they were a challenging read, I couldn’t put them down. There’s more in there than just eating disorders.

We begin with the Dunkle family in Germany. In particular, with Elena and her sister’s school experience. At this point, the girls are in their early teens, if I remember. (I took no notes, I didn’t want the distraction.) Both stories tell of Elena’s encounters with doctors, Clare’s fights with insurance companies, and Elena’s admittance to residential treatment centers. Both chronicle the persistent downward spiral of anorexia.

But we are reading neither tragedy, “Oh, so sad, the waste of a young life,” nor suspense, “Is it now that she dies?” You know all along the story has a happy ending. There’s a picture of Elena, healthy, on the back flap of her book. You read for something else.

Five Reasons To Read “Hope and Other Luxuries” And “Elena Vanishing”

  1. You are a mother with an adult daughter, and you think about your relationship.
  2. You wonder, to this day, how much responsibility to take for how your kids turn out.
  3. You are fascinated by the question of narrator truth. These books offer two viewpoints, and yet they were both written at least in part by the mother. Some questions are never resolved.
  4. You are interested in the impact of voice in autobiographies. Clare Dunkle’s uncomplicated language, her simple plot-telling, in a reverse twist, creates a ghostly sense of something untold. As does the background knowledge that she writes fantasy fiction for a living.
  5. And finally, optionally, you have a family member with an eating disorder or an addiction.

Although never articulated as such, I found the real narrative engine for these books to be the question, “Was this my fault? Our fault?” Something every mother has asked herself, at least once.

Early in the book, we read a statement, never fully attributed, that while childhood anorexia is caused by the family, the later-onset variety is provoked by an external event. Elena experiences a candidate external event – revealed reasonable early in the book but I’ll keep it a mystery here – that could have gotten all this going.

And yet.

You finish the book wanting to ask more questions.

Three Unasked And Unanswered Questions

  1. Elena’s older sister has an episode of self-harming before Elena’s issues begin, runs away from home, meets a man, has a child, and then moves back home and gets married. This story isn’t told from her point of view. Would her thoughts have provided more detail, more insight?
  2. The father’s temper is mentioned but never described. Was it out of bounds?
  3. How much did the apparently poor doctoring matter, in the face of Elena’s lies?

But you understand that these questions drive you to the brink of the historical abyss of Blame The Mother. This sets up a compelling dynamic inside the reader that’s the primary reason to read the book. We ask ourselves, why is it so hard to take the story at face value? What is the right course, to question or to accept?

This is something I ask myself about my own children. When is it better for them that I take responsibility for their beings? When is it better that I believe them now to be autonomous units, making their own choices, in a world of peers, significant others, and colleagues? Motherhood doesn’t come with performance reviews, there are no double-blind studies to give us hard data.

In the end, whether Clare was complicit in Elena’s anorexia or not may matter less than the opportunity to participate in  the simple but complicated, open but mysterious, maternal self-questioning. I’m thinking of reading The Hollow Kingdom next. And I’m very, very glad Elena is OK.


Note: Ginee Seo, the editor from Chronicle Books, contacted me about sending the books for a review. I’d like to thank her for getting in touch. She noted that I’d written about my brief young adult experience with bulemia, and that she was a fellow Princeton alumna. Hard to turn down, that. As always, our agreement was that I would review only if I felt I had something to say, and that I would say only what I thought. If you do get a hold of  them, make sure to read Clare’s first. It will be easier to remember her timeline while reading Elena’s version, than to remember Elena’s while reading Clare.


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  • Thank you for reading the books and posting this review, Lisa. As usual, you bring your intelligence and thoughtfulness to bear on difficult and unanswerable questions.

    As a YA editor, I read Elena’s book thinking that her story offered something truly different to teenagers suffering from eating disorders. I’ve never had the disease myself, but I have known many friends who have, and (to my shame) probably judged them for it. I know I lost one friendship over it. So to me, Elena’s book was a window into an experience that made empathy possible.

    As for Clare’s story, I read it not just as one of parental responsibility and guilt (although of course that is there) but also as the story of how a writer dealt with a life-or-death family problem. Obviously I’m not saying all writers deal with problems in this way, but this was another element of the book that I found fascinating.

    Thanks again for this post. I love the fact that you found much more to write about the books than the diseases they cover.

    1:44 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Ginee Seo, Both your points are very well-taken. My feelings for Elena were not as empathetic as they might have been – I am too easily tweaked, I suppose, having been through some of it myself. I did find it really interesting seeing Clare, a well-known writer, using her craft to address such a family issue.

  • STANDING OVATION, a brilliant piece of work, thank you.

    1:44 pm
    Lisa said...

    @TheHuntingHouse, That is extremely kind of you. You are very welcome.

  • Interesting juxtaposition. I feel like we’re often looking at people’s stories with the internal question of why did this happen to them and why isn’t this going to happen to me . I think these two books paired together would be an excellent choice for my book club we like to discuss a couple of books the same time .

    1:45 pm
    Lisa said...

    @RoseG, Oh, yes! I wish I’d had a book club to read these with. I feel as though it would have been a rich and deep discussion.

  • “Childhood anorexia is caused by the family”? I’d like to see some documentation for that conclusion!
    The books do sound fascinating, though!

    7:59 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Murphy, It’s just one of the several mysteries…

  • Really interesting review – and I’m not one to engage with book reviews (even though I got a degree in English Lit. Strange, I know.) I’m only interested in how the book impacts the reader (i.e. me, in most cases). You’ve given me a sense of that here. Thanks.

    8:00 pm
    Lisa said...

    @K-Line, Thank you. I don’t generally do book reviews here – only if there is some kind of personal, or topic connection, to what we talk about usually. Occasionally I’ll pull together some thumbnail reviews, if I’ve got really good books to recommend that people read.

  • I really liked this post simply because it is about the books from your perspective and how they affect you and your thoughts. Increasingly that is the direction in which my interest lies. They do sound like good books to read with a group, books that could lead to a fascinating discussion

    7:17 am
    Lisa said...

    @Mardel, Thanks. I wrote the review this way because I found the books inside of me to be far more complex than the books on the page. Does that make sense? That’s partly what’s so compelling – I had to get at how the books produced the effect they did.

  • Great review,Lisa, you make me intrigued, about these books,and such a deep thinking while reading and writing about it,you are like a third side involved,a great choice from the publisher!
    Some 30-40 years ago anorexia was not so common,and yes, it was meant very often caused by family (role models ,family-mother!- interactions , the only thing you can control by yourself,etc .) There were less media and peer pressure then,so ,it is very complicated and its a mystery……still

    7:18 am
    Lisa said...

    @dottoressa, Thank you. I am always honored when an editor reaches out to me. And I agree, eating disorders have so many channels these days.

  • I was unsettled a couple of throwaway lines in your review, Lisa, and still more so by some of the comments. As a former (recovered) anorexic, I have skin in the game, so to speak – but it seems to me that there are still some fairly deep-seated prejudices about the “unlikeability” of sufferers.

    The scientific evidence is increasingly pointing to a very large role for genetics in anorexia nervous (much more so than in relation to other eating disorders), and yet we are still talking about it as though it is something awful that patients choose to do to themselves and their families, for which we have commensurately little sympathy or patience.

    Watching a loved one suffer through cancer is also a dreadful and grueling process for a family. If someone had the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes for breast/ovarian cancer, we would not consider them to be “selfish” or unlikeable. And yet AN sufferers continue to attract a peculiarly personal kind of criticism. It’s all the more upsetting because it fits so neatly into a very entrenched but damaging paradigm of feminity – anorexia is an attempt to “get attention” or to “compete” with others, rather than being a dreadful, insidious and extraordinarily powerful disease.

    My mother and grandmother both suffered from AN. I am now the mother of a daughter. The likelihood of her developing this disease terrifies me, not least because AN has the highest morbidity rate of any mental illness. I would like us to devote more time to finding the responsible genes and a possible cure, and focus less upon the putative failings of those involved.

    7:46 am
    Lisa said...

    I whole-heartedly agree. My apologies if the lines appeared to be “throwaway,” they were not. I struggled, while reading Elena’s book, with her “unlikeability.” I was taken aback by how little I “liked” her from her internal voice. There’s a whole different discussion to have about the emotions anorexics provoke, given the ongoing and pernicious issues with weight and attractiveness facing women in many nations.

    I am so sorry you suffered. Even my brief bout with bulemia was an unforgettable time of being what felt like a totally different person. I had not heard about the genetic links, and I thank you for contributing the information to our thread here. I imagine your daughter, despite the genetic risks, is lucky to have you as a mother. All my best.

    12:10 pm
    AJFlamingo said...

    @Elizabeth, As someone who has journeyed with two different cancers for thirty years with multiple recurrences and a “dog in this fight,” (I loved the comment from a previous reader about having “skin in the game), I can tell you of numerous friends I lost over the “way [I] handled [my] cancer” and its recurrences. As one ages, the threat of mortality becomes more personal to one’s friends as they realize it could happen to them too so opinions get stronger and not-solicited advice is given more frequently. It took me a long time to realize these reactions were more about them and not me. But that doesn’t mean it hurt less at the time. I live in more isolation now but it serves me better than constant judgment.

  • That’s the question, isn’t it? When are we, as parents…particularly, mothers…complicit? I know that I became more forgiving of my own parents once I had children. I hope my kids do the same.

    3:41 pm
    Lisa said...

    As do I. xox.