I Must Have You by JoAnna Novak
Elliot is 13 years old and has suffered from anorexia for a long time. The illness has consumed her so much that she is now a diet coach for other girls at her school. Of course, her dieting techniques are all based on eating disorder thought processes and the girls are getting trained in unhealthy behaviors. Elliot’s best friend, Lisa, who she has very deep feelings for, recently got out of an inpatient hospital program for eating disorders and wants nothing to do with her anymore. On top of that, Elliot’s mom suffers from bulimia, herself. Elliot wants Lisa back, she wants her mom to be happy, and she wants ‘her girls’ to succeed in weight loss.
Eating disorders are not written about very often in literature and, when they are, it’s usually in young adult books. I Must Have You is definitely an adult book, with very adult content, so I was really excited to pick up this book. The way eating disorders were presented was great, so I’m going to start my review with that.
Elliot very clearly has extremely distorted thoughts involving food and body image. She spends her lunch making copies of her dieting magazine, which she hands out as motivation to her ‘clients’. JoAnna Novak’s way of portraying Elliot’s illness is so detailed that she includes a scene where Elliot is looking at photos of emaciated people in the library stacks for inspiration. JoAnna Novak also consistently includes descriptions of the tiny exercises that Elliot performs while doing every day activities, like working her calves as the microwave warms her low calorie meal. Almost everything Elliot says has something to do with food, exercising, dieting tips, or her friend Lisa.
Lisa, on the other hand, is trying so hard to get Elliot’s ‘tips’ out of her brain. She has just gotten out of inpatient hospitalization and is constantly battling with eating disorder behaviors in her brain. Many times, she identifies when she is thinking in an unhealthy thought pattern and switches her brain into recovery mode. Novak did an amazing job researching what happens to adolescents after they are discharged from programs like that. It is common for individuals to be set up with therapists who do exactly that, teach them how to change their unhealthy thoughts into healthy ones.
The way eating disorders were written about in I Must Have You was brilliant, but the writing was lacking. In the first few pages of the book, I had to go back and read passages multiple times because I couldn’t figure out who was who. The book was introducing so many new characters in the same 4 paragraphs and it was really confusing. I actually had to look at some reviews on GoodReads, which explained all the friendships and families, to get all the characters straight. Unfortunately, the writing still continued to jump around all over the place as the book went on. I found myself confused by the erratic sentences more times than I would have liked.
Lastly, I wish the ending wrapped up with a major takeaway. Conclusions are so important in literature, especially when a book is about a stigmatized topic, like mental illness. JoAnna Novak could have blown her readers away with the final pages showing that eating disorders are illnesses that need to be properly treated and recognized as such. Imagine, a book that features 3 main characters with eating disorders, and it wraps up with a message about the severity and validity of their illnesses. I’m not quite sure what my dream ending for this book is, but I know I’m not satisfied with what I read.
I Must Have You was just okay. I usually don’t write full reviews for books that I didn’t really like, but I’m making an exception because the themes of this book are so important. I’m really impressed with the research JoAnna Novak put into the minds and habits of her characters, but I’m disappointed with her writing style and conclusion. I hope to soon see adult books that feature protagonists with mental illnesses, such as eating disorders, make their way to the bestseller list.