Thin Girls by Diana Clarke deals with some heavy, important subjects all at once: eating disorders, body image issues/body dysmorphia, toxic diet culture, social influencer culture, emotional/physical abuse, parental abandonment, rape, co-dependency, LGBTQI+ issues, and so on. Thin Girls tells the story of twins, Rose and Lily Winters, whose bond is so intense that they can literally taste each other's emotions; a lie tastes like citric acid, fear like ice. The narrative is from Rose's point-of-view and switches from past to present regularly, covering the girls' child- and teenage-hood as well as their early twenties. As young girls, Rose and Lily are largely left to their own devices. Their parents are hands-off, their mother a faint blip on the radar as she sets the stage for the girls' lifelong battle with body image before she decides to abandon them and their father and start a new life with a new family. There are obvious hints towards the father's sexuality, but it is never directly addressed between the family members - and he checks out mentally and emotionally when the mother leaves.
In high school, awkward, image-conscious Rose is beautiful, popular Lily's shadow, content to tag along and watch from the periphery. The girls eventually fall in with the "popular crowd," a group of girls whose bold, brash leader insists that bones are beautiful. For once, Rose can achieve something her twin can't: weightlessness. As Rose grows smaller and smaller, taking up less space in the universe, Lily starts consuming the space - and the food - her sister rejects. The twins' relationship turns toxic, neither girl knowing how to reel themselves or each other back in.
As Rose and Lily grow into their twenties, Rose is checked into a rehab facility and Lily turns to abusive men and, eventually, toward a dangerous influencer culture that sets her on the path to another eating disorder. Rose decides that she has to "get better" and get out of the rehab facility in order to rescue Lily from herself.
Thus, the book chronicles, in aching, uncomfortable detail, the lengths that Rose and her fellow facility peers go to "maintain" their weight at the facility. No one is actually interested in recovering and the staff seem oblivious to the numerous ways in which the girls are manipulating meal times, weigh-ins and counseling sessions. (The counseling sessions themselves are a joke. The only ones we are privy to as readers are the ones where the women are instructed to "flirt with" and "greet" their food items. Only in fiction would a treatment program include such ridiculous content.) These scenes read almost like a "how to" manual for eating-disordered (ED) individuals. It was shocking and unbelievable to me that a treatment facility would be so oblivious to the damage being done, and that the women and the facility itself would be so mistreated and disregarded. It felt, as another reviewer aptly describes, an exploitative, harmful and irresponsible portrayal of ED treatment.
The piling on of "issues" that both Rose and Lily face eventually resulted in a pile that seemed too high to believe or achieve. I am aware that many people have spectacularly crappy lives and that it sometimes seems as if the whole world conspires against them, but the only "good thing" in Rose's life seems to eventually be (spoiler alert) the same teenage friend who initially encouraged her anorexia. There's very little explanation for how her friend recovered from her own crippling eating disorder, and the reader is expected to believe that grilled veggies, a seaside cottage, and a wise grandmother figure are enough to combat more than a decade of toxic behaviors and thoughts.
I realize this review is a bit spoilery and does not portray Thin Girls in a very positive light - but then, a book that deals with such relevant and important topics must be held to a higher standard. This one did not really meet mine. None of the characters are likable (and a few seemed more like plot devices), the entire plot was depressing, events seemed too manufactured, the book itself tried to deal with too many subjects at once, and ultimately, it felt too voyeuristic - like horrifying, realistic images on TV that you can't tear your eyes away from.
With all of that said, I did give Thin Girls three stars and I did so because I was "entertained" enough to keep reading, and I do think there's value to be had in discussing the toxic diet culture and other issues portrayed in the book - but this book is and will be very triggering for those who are struggling with eating disorders or body image issues, and I can't honestly say I'd recommend it to any of my family or friends. I'm sure there are other books out there that deal with eating disorders in a more effective and balanced manner, and I'd be interested to read them. If you have recommendations, I'd love to hear them!