By Carolyn See
Friday, June 4, 2010; C03
ANTHROPOLOGY OF AN AMERICAN GIRL
By Hilary Thayer Hamann
Spiegel & Grau. 606 pp. $26
"Anthropology of an American Girl" is, among other things, a stern rebuke to chick lit everywhere. Coming in at some 600 pages, it reminds us that all human lives are potentially sacred; that no lives should be judged and dismissed out of hand; that young women, though seen for eons as primarily just attractive objects, actually possess soul and will and sentience. This novel follows one girl as she grows up in an Eden she takes for granted with the solipsism of youth. The actual place is the town of East Hampton on Long Island; the book's second half is set for four hectic years in Manhattan during the early '80s, with all its sex and cocaine and money and AIDS whirling in a merciless torrent of social change.
The novel, with its many pages and its extensive cast of characters, aspires to comparison with "War and Peace." It's as vast and ambitious as the country itself, a panorama of a particular culture being born and dying and being reborn again. But the book is a lengthy exegesis on the merits of first love and true love -- in this case, two very different phenomena.
"Anthropology of an American Girl" is also a very respectable and serious descendant of the work of D.H. Lawrence. There are repeated references to what it might mean for any of us to be "masculine" or "feminine," as in: "I discovered my soul's invention, the feminine genius of me," which comes smack dab in the middle of the book. And at almost the very end, the heroine makes this melodramatic plea to the villain: "Don't let hurting me be the measure of your manhood."
The book has an interesting history that speaks to the determination of its author: When no one would publish it, she founded her own publishing house and released it herself in 2003. She sold out a first printing of 5,000, an almost unheard-of achievement. It seems to have taken her around five years to send it out again to commercial publishers, and one hopes that people were encouraging her all along to shorten the damn thing; it could lose 100 pages and still impart the information she wishes to impart, but, obviously, she would have none of that. To quote my children, she's "a woman of strong opinions and she doesn't mind sharing them." So here the book stands, once the darling of the underground, now available in commercial form.
The plot itself is simple. Young Eveline (as in Eve, the mother of all mankind), grows up in a small beach community, raised by a divorced mother who works hard to support the both of them and pays Evie the compliment of treating her with benign neglect. Evie saves her filial adoration for her best friend's mom, but that woman dies in short order, and Evie is left -- not really alone, but not really supported either. In her junior year she falls in love with Jack, a beautiful, self-destructive rebel who's the son of a monster-father who wreaks havoc when he can. Kate, Evie's best friend, moves in with her after her mom dies, probably -- in terms of the narrative -- so that Evie can learn to separate from her friends and prepare herself to find the perfect mate.
And in her senior year, she does find that person, in the form of a substitute drama teacher -- a young fellow in his 20s, seven years older than she, named Harrison Rourke, who is also a professional boxer with tenuous connections to the New Jersey mob. It almost goes without saying that Rourke is dazzlingly handsome, has a sterling character (according to his own lights), and deeply respects his mother. Both he and Evie struggle against this grand passion, to no avail. By the time she graduates from high school, Evie has broken up with Jack. She and Rourke spend a magical summer in Montauk, plumbing the depths of their attraction to each other. Then the summer is over. Rourke goes off to fulfill mysterious duties, and Evie enrolls in NYU.
She ends up living with Mark, a sniveling, reptilian, sidewinder-stockbroker who has coveted her for some time. He also hates Rourke with a dreadful hatred, since Rourke is a good person and he is not. But Mark and his family have been there in East Hampton all along -- one of the rich families living cheek-to-cheek with the poor. Evie lives with Mark for three, long, desperately unhappy years, and this is the part of the book that most tries the reader's patience. "For heaven's sake," one longs to say to her, "move back into the dorm if you hate him so much! Especially if you disdain riches as much as you say. Stop being so doleful and spiteful!" But -- if I read correctly -- the author is making the (doubtful) point that without the correct man to complete her, a woman is paralyzed, a woman is nothing. Mark uses these three years to plot and scheme, to be disagreeable and misbehave at parties, to dabble in cocaine and heroin. (Not Rourke; he's way too pure for that.)
The first 300 pages here are unique, a wonderful rendering of decent kids enjoying a tenuous peace and contentment they can barely comprehend. The second half, the city half, has been done before, mostly by Bret Easton Ellis, but it's good, nonetheless. We see that the 1980s really are definitively in the past; you just don't see that kind of cocaine around anymore.
Two last things: Readers can judge their emotional age by whether they side with the kids or the parents here. And after 600 pages, you realize what's been missing all along: not a single giggle from any of these young girls over a period of five years; not one breath taken in mirth, no code words, no silliness, no eruptions of goofy joy. Yes, true love is serious, but please God, not that serious!
Nevertheless, I finished this book with regret. Hamann has put together a carefully devised, coherent world, filled with opinions that need to be spoken -- and heard.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.Sunday in Outlook
-- The last word on Custer's last stand.
-- An eyewitness account of Lebanon's struggles.
-- The perverse persistence of Shakespeare doubters.
-- Stories of Burma's never-ending war.
-- And how air conditioning is burning us up.