This striking first novel concerns a pair of twentysomething New York City neurotics. Ruth Simon is a poor little rich girl—anorexic, bulimic and full of self-loathing and repressed rage at her self-absorbed mother and withholding father. Her lover, Joseph Zimmerman, a young Columbia grad who teaches English to Russian immigrants, is obsessed with Ruth's illness because he hasn't come to terms with the suicide of an older sister. Suspecting that Ruth has returned to the hinging and purging of her teen years, Joseph stoops to reading her diary, checking the trash, even tricking Ruth into opening her mouth so he can check for telltale signs of bulimia-caused decay. Are his fears justified or is Joseph—struggling with a recurring migraine problem—projecting his own sickness onto his fragile lover?
Rosen's debut is impressive but uneven. Ruth (a "meticulous recorder, the Pepys of eating disorders") never becomes more than a body and a set of afflictions; and though Joseph is more three-dimensional, his combination of naïveté and nobility can be cloying. But much of the writing is powerful, and Rosen takes on some ambitious themes—including self-starvation as a woman's exercise of power; the perversity of the male's attraction to the sick female; the unknowability of another person—let alone oneself; and the notion that "the things that make us human often make us ill." (Random House, $24)