June 01, 1992 12:00 PM

by Jenefer Shute

One day I will be thin enough. Just the bones, no disfiguring flesh, just the-pure, clear shape of me.” Meet Josie, the 25-year-old narrator of Shute’s nightmare of a first novel. She’s a 5’2″, 67-lb. grad student hospitalized with anorexia. Josie offers a disturbing monologue on everything from how she keeps herself from fainting to the precise calorie count of each item on her food tray to the exhortations of women’s magazines to be somebody.

Shute, 32, knows her character well. “At age 17, I was well on my way to becoming anorexic…,” she writes. “I still live with the phobia of becoming fat.”

The mind of an anorexic isn’t a pleasant place. Josie obsessively examines her skeletal frame for signs of fat, eyes with disgust a greasy gob of cheese and then salivates over a restaurant review. She has blackouts and her hair is falling out, yet she’s determined to do her leg lifts and, frequently, exercise her sarcastic wit as well. “(Q. Describe your habitual mode of exercise. A. Going too far. Q. Have you ever ceased menstruating for more than two months? A. Whenever possible.)” She mocks body awareness therapy and barely puts up with the psychiatrist. Sometimes she does eat, slicing her apple into sixteenths and taking four minutes to digest each sliver. Only when she’s threatened with tube feeding does she reluctantly promise to eat a bit more.

In a montage of memories, Josie recalls her fat mother, her best friend who blossomed into a gorgeous teen while Josie just ballooned, a series of unsatisfying sexual encounters and a once favorite breakfast of diluted skim milk with instant coffee, sugar substitute and ice whirred in a blender.

Suddenly, Josie is declared to be “at a weight now where normal physiological functioning is possible,” and is about to be discharged. How did this happen? Yes, she gained a few pounds, but we’ve never seen any sign of motivation on Josie’s part, and the doctors haven’t seemed able to reach her. Even as she’s planning a clothes-buying jaunt with the nurse, Josie is contemplating her “huge” thighs.

Shute brilliantly captures the torment and self-loathing of a body-obsessed person. But she should have better mapped signs of progress leading to Josie’s abrupt dismissal. As it is, readers aren’t prepared for it any more than Josie is. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)

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