TW: eating disorder.
The Reading Cure is journalist Laura Freeman’s account of how reading helped her recover from anorexia. Although there are a couple of harrowing chapters, the book as a whole is far more positive than I think I expected, as Freeman finds the courage through reading to change her attitude to food, bit by bit.
She’s very clear that anorexia isn’t really a thing you “recover” from, that it’s taken her years to get as far as she has, and that she’ll probably never be comfortable with eating loads of food. It’s an honest, clear-eyed look not at anorexia itself, which has become sensationalised to some extent, but at what happens afterwards, the long and intensely less storyable process of eating healthily again.
There are setbacks: after Dickens’ cosy toast-and-tea suppers and treasured bars of chocolate with the war writers comes the clean eating movement, which sees Freeman restricting her flowering diet back down to “healthy”, “permitted” foods. There are delvings into darkness: her reading of Virginia Woolf, who similarly struggled with eating and with her mental health, leads Freeman to fear that she’ll meet the same lonely end as that writer; but, at the same time, she draws courage from Woolf’s determination.
One caveat: Freeman’s experience is very definitely middle-to-upper-class. Her parents are comfortably able to look after her for a year in their London townhouse; she’s able to afford books while early in her career as a freelance journalist; she goes on holiday to far-flung destinations. I’m not saying it’s, like, a jetsetting lifestyle, and she’s open about the privilege she has – but this is far from a universal account of recovery from anorexia.
As a book about food, food writing and our relationships with both – extreme or otherwise – it’s thoughtful and fascinating, and I found myself in tears more than once. I’m so glad I picked this up at the library.