Anorexia Nervosa as Portrayed in Oligarchy

“All pleasure in life is gone. The joy of eating went a long time ago, of course, but now there is not even joy in starving.”

-Scarlett Thomas, Oligarchy

After Lydia Millet praised the book in a recent New York Times article, describing it as “a study in obsessiveness”, I immediately ordered Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas. “Obsession,” I realized, takes on a new extreme in the lives of these characters. Oligarchy follows a newly wealthy, Russian teenager named Natasha who arrives in Hertfordshire where she starts as a student in an all-girl boarding school. Natasha befriends a group of girls and avoids the reality of her past in favor of embracing her new economic status and the glamorous life it entails. In the contained ecosystem of the private school setting, Natasha sees firsthand the dark reality for privileged girls who are obsessed with dieting and beauty. The book takes a turn when one of her new friends, Bianca, commits suicide by drowning in a lake on the school grounds. While the author, Scarlett Thomas, has a great wit about her that shined in some moments in the book, I worry that the language may be gruesome and unsettling for the young audience that this book will be marketed to. *TW: eating disorders*

After having read positive reviews of the book, I was intrigued to give it a read. Unfortunately, I think the book struggles in a few ways. Anorexia and binge-eating is discussed in incredibly descriptive detail throughout the text. Popular terms such as #thinspo and extreme dieting tips are referenced and outlined in detail. The author’s language is brutal for the sensitive subject matter it covers. In order to show the perception of the girls, the author describes fat girls in a really unflattering way, and she later uses macabre descriptions of their anorexic bodies. I can understand that in the beginning, the point of the unflattering language was to show the girl’s low self-esteem using descriptions that they would say about their own bodies. Later, the language changes. The girls reach an apex where they are perceived as very beautiful as a result of their weight loss, but the language of the text becomes increasingly macabre to show their physical decay. It becomes morbid to read about the girls bodies, almost as if they are dead already. If you decide to read this book, then please be mindful of this language. Understand that the lens you must read it through is that of the girls whose perception is incredibly twisted because of their body dysmorphia.

What I enjoyed most about reading Oligarchy was the connections I made to other sources of literature. Oligarchy reminded me of stories such as The Virgin Suicides, Girl, Interrupted, and The Heathers. All of the aforementioned books feature groups of girls/young women who are confronted with an inner struggle, such as suicide, mental disorders/psychosis, and murder. The boarding school in Oligarchy reminded me of the mental institution in Girl, Interrupted. Natasha like Susanna in Girl, Interrupted starts to adopt the habits and mindset of the girls in her school and is driven to a state of madness. I also noticed many interesting parallels in this novel to The Virgin Suicides. The sisters in The Virgin Suicides are essentially prisoners in their own home just as the girls in Oligarchy are prisoners in the boarding school.

I would recommend this book to people that enjoy dark humor. Thomas strives to find levity in a story with really dark themes. Bearing in mind, I would not recommend this book to anyone who has struggled in the past with body image issues or anyone who has suffered with any sort of eating disorder. I don’t think every book is meant for every single person, and I strongly urge those that feel at risk of being triggered by the story to choose a different title.

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