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In our era of complaint, we are encouraged to monitor the degree of our own emotional damage and bemoan it. Confessionals have become pleasantries, and dysfunctions marks of distinction. So a 25-year-old anorexic is not such an unlikely heroine for our time. What is unlikely is Stephanie Grant’s intelligent and engaging treatment of a young woman’s disorder. In her first novel, The Passion of Alice, Grants emerges as a stylish writer. More significantly, though, she proves a valuable observer of the present age, skillfully transforming the fodder for countless TV movies into an innovative and often satirical exploration of Americans’ faith in the recovery process.

Grant’s title character refuses to classify herself as a victim. “My anorexia is a form of self-knowledge,” Alice Forrester declares. “People think that anorexics imagine ourselves fat and diet away invisible flab. But people are afraid of the truth: we prefer ourselves this way, boiled-down bone, essence.” Alice has considerable time to ponder the issue while she recovers on the eating disorders unit of Seaview Hospital following a heart attack. The unit treats anorexics, bulimics, and overeaters together, “[t]he obese alongside the thinning….There we were,” Alice announces, “every girl who’d ever been tortured at recess.”

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Just as in school, there is a clear hierarchy among the women on the eating disorders unit.Alice and the other young women at Seaview may seem equally ill to outsiders, but there is a hierarchy in the eating disorders ward. The anorexics feel superior to the bulimics, the bulimics to the overeaters; Alice’s bulimic friend Maeve scoffs, “You anorexics. You’re so famous to yourselves.” In certain situations, they literally feed each other’s obsessions. At lunch, Alice slips her overweight companion Louise food from her own plate. She grows strangely uneasy around Maeve’s voluptuous figure, and applies mathematical formulae to determine that she actually weighs five pounds less than Gwen, a fellow anorexic who calls Alice’s emaciated wrists “aristocratic.”

All the Seaview patients are subjected to the same haphazard recovery program: nutrition education, art therapy, talk sessions. Alice soon realizes that “everyone would be eager to tell the thing she did with food. Like the way girls talked about masturbation in college. I felt old-fashioned explaining I was a simple calorie counter.” On Friday nights, the women attend a “mixed Twelve Step meeting” with recovering alcoholics, most of them men (“So you can see the disease in its various, insidious forms,” one counselor explains to the food addicts).

Alice is justifiably suspicious of the rhetoric of recovery; “[i]t was George Orwell, not Jim Jones, they’d borrowed from,” she concludes, critiquing the cult of Twelve Step. Though she does feel “emptiness—our leitmotif at Seaview,” Alice wants someone who will truly understand that lack, “[n]ot…in the way the counselors did, which was to take every word and action apart and lay them bare, to focus attention on every inch of your life until it was brittle with apparent meaning. With cause and effect.” She considers her anorexia more complex, almost spiritual in nature.

While Alice does fit the textbook profile of an anorexic—affluent, educated, overachieving, female—she is far more than mere illustration. She has a distinctive persona and an irreverent voice. That voice is least impressive when Grant allows Alice to wander into the field of mall sociology, shopping for Barbie dolls and bras—such scenes mostly reiterate conventional feminist commentary. But Alice’s observations of mass-manufactured recovery are smart and true. At the mixed meeting, Alice notes, the male alcoholics’ litany of losses heightens the heroism of their recoveries. Yet the women in her unit, she says, “had not lost jobs or wives or houses. For the most part we did not have things to lose; we were part of what other people lost. Fat or emaciated, average-looking but obsessed, garbage pickers and pukers, we lived in houses we did not pay for, houses with convection ovens and Cuisinarts, juicers and microwaves.”

Ultimately, Alice discovers that the women can help (or damage) one another far more than slogans, counselors or institutional incentives. The Seaview patients provide each other with startling reflections on their own weakness and mortality, and Alice’s feelings for her friends are as complicated as her disorder, spanning the spectrum from sisterly to sexual. This is Grant’s final triumph: her recognition of the sloppy nature of human interaction and survival. Her novel is a timely debut of fresh insight and considerable heart.