Anorexia nervosa has become a trendy mental disease. Victims - most of them young girls battling their way through adolescence - literally starve themselves to death. Obsess with food and fear of getting fat, they refuse to eat, downing laxatives, sticking their fingers down their throats in order to vomit, exercising to the point of exhaustion. In severe cases, anorexics must be hospitalized and fed intravenously.
"Solitaire" and "Alabaster Chambers," one a personal journal, the other a novel, are each about anorexic young women. Aimee of "Solitaire" is a bright rich, troubled adolescent in Connecticut; Talia of "Alabaster Chambers" is a bright, rich, trouble newlywed in Atlanta, Ga.
Illness as a prism through which plot and character become enhanced is an old technique. As diseased heroines, however, Aimee and Talia fall short of the appeal of the consumptive Mimi in "La Boheme," the stricken Jenny in "Love Story" or crazy Nicole in "Tender is the Night." It may be the disease itself. There's something repulsive and self-indulgent about anorexia that taints its victims, making them smaller, not larger, throough illness. In some ways you wish they'd just grow up and eat, or as Talia's mother exclaims to the psychiatrist: "This ridiculous illness. It's ruining our lives. All that child has to do is eat and everything will be straightened out." Everything and nothing as the cruel mystery of anorexia nervosa spins itself out.
As a novel, "Alabaster Chambers" has some basic problems. Can a young couple find happiness and success in the cold corporate world? The answer doesn't lie in a silly plot or wooden characters. Moreover, the sexual triangle between the kooky wife, her obnoxious husband and the officious woman shrink is enough to make psychiatrists take out extra malpractice insurance.
And yet, what saves the book is its masterful portrayal of the disease. The gradual sinking of Talia deeper and deeper into anorexia is carefully documented. Step by step, the sense of despair and the terrible reality of this condition - the hollow stare, the protruding bones, the child-like apathy - haunt the reader. The title taken from Emily Dickinson describes the solitary cocoon of mental illness: "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers Untouched by Morning/And untouched by Noon."
"Solitaire," also an apt title, is a kind of flashback diary of author Aimee Liu's own teen years. She starts out on a high note: writing compellingly, she offers a good characterization of her family, a moving description of their expatriate life in India and explains the jolt of return to affluent New York Exurbia. But then, about half-way through, the book stalls. Maybe it's inevitable. After a certain point, the inner voices of a whiny adolescent girl who fights with her mother and refuses to eat becomes a bore.
"Solitaire's" ending is very unsatisfactory. With the mere flick of a page, our heroine leaps from what sounds like a clinical-disease state to Miss Mental Health.
Despite their faillings, however, both books succeed in raising the whole issue of women and sex and food. There's a little anorexia is all of us; the mixing of eating and sexuality seems to be a particularly female thing. It can't be said loud enough that the way adolescent girls eat with their gorge-and-starve habits is closely linked to their sexual development. Here is a strikingly illustrative episode from "Solitaire": Aimee is baby-sitting. "The lure of the television, the call of my homework wee no competition for the magnet of the kitchen: food", she writes. "Like a creature obsessed, neither tasting or thinking, I burrowed through cupboards, refrigerator, cookie jar, and freezer. Grabbing fistfuls of Mallomars and brownies, gulping ice cream, Jell-O, and cheese, I was indiscriminate in my gorging . . ." Aimee then goes into the bathroom to throw up. She hates herself and afraid of her frenzy.
What makes a young girl cross the border of normal behavior into the self-destructive territory of anorexia nervosa? There are no good answers. As the condition runs its course, girls who once had busts and hips begin to look like boys. So thin, they no longer menstruate. Usually they are frigid, shunning sex. Their self-loathing borne of a crazed fear of getting fat becomes fatal.
Doctors believe that the incidence of anorexia nervosa may be increasing - an ironic disease in an age of afluence.