Thomas has spoken in the past about her own disordered eating, which includes “more than 100 different food rules.” She’s not alone. So many women struggle with weight and its implications for appearance, health, confidence and style. When Natasha (“Tash”) arrives at the English boarding school in Hertfordshire to which her Russian oligarch father has sent her, she finds privileged girls obsessed with losing weight and being thin. They think about food and fat all the time, using cruel games to keep themselves accountable. “Bianca’s last game involved finding pictures of the celebrities with the fattest arms,” Thomas writes of one of Tash’s classmates. “The one before that was collecting screenshots of obese children from Instagram.”
For these girls, being rich has less to do with money and more to do with starvation. It’s an oligarchy built on a currency that accrues through sacrifice: protruding pelvic bones, whittled limbs and prominent clavicles. As Tash and her friends invent their own treasury system, the adults around them remain foolishly clueless. One teacher encourages the girls to measure each other’s BMI with calipers. After Bianca disappears, a pair of strange therapists are brought in, though they hurt more than they help, taunting the students with what happens to those with late-stage eating disorders.
Bianca’s disappearance turns out to be evidence of something much darker than a bumbling faculty. She is found dead in the school pond. We soon learn that the headmaster, Dr. Moone, has a nasty predilection for photographing students — and encouraging their skinniness. It’s a bracing reminder that no matter how obsessively young people measure themselves against one another, their self-worth also comes from the grown-ups around them. Tash has a glamorous relation, Aunt Sonja, who occasionally swoops in and takes her to London for lunch and shopping. Aside from that fact that she has a career, Aunt Sonja might as well be lifted from the pages of a 19th-century novel; her dictums include “Never drink alcohol — it’s empty calories” and “Don’t have too many calories but don’t have so few your body decides to hoard all its fat.” With aunts like Sonja, who needs enemies?
Turns out Aunt Sonja isn’t the enemy at all, just a tired single woman who loves her niece so much she funnels all of her own neuroses into her advice.
In her acknowledgments, the author writes, “This book came out of nowhere and surprised me and everyone around me.” If so, it may be because, for once, Thomas’s id overruled her ego. The result is a strange but urgent glimpse into society’s often conflicting expectations of girls.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
Counterpoint. 230 pp. $26