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”
- You are a mother with an adult daughter, and you think about your relationship.
- You wonder, to this day, how much responsibility to take for how your kids turn out.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
You finish the book wanting to ask more questions.
Three Unasked And Unanswered Questions
- 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?
- The father’s temper is mentioned but never described. Was it out of bounds?
- 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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