THE GIRLS' GUIDE TO
HUNTING AND FISHING
By Melissa Bank
Viking. 274 pp. $23.95
MY FATHER, DANCING
By Bliss Broyard
Knopf. 189 pp. $22
Reviewed by Liesl Schillinger
The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing is one of the most satisfying, effortless story collections to come around in a long time -- effortless to read, that is, not to write. When a first book has an engaging style that you can safely describe as terse, you had better believe it's by art, and not by accident. The heroine of Melissa Bank's debut is a young Manhattan editor, Jane Rosenal, who has a way of talking -- or of not talking -- that can make Hemingway's Nick Adams sound long-winded. Adjectives must plead to make it through her door. When Jane's lover, a literary lion three decades her senior, indulges in a reverie about an old flame, he justifies himself by saying, "It's my life I'm telling you about." Jane responds, "What's your point?" Then she scores a point he hadn't thought of, saying, "Let me tell you about the men I've known." The barb is a parry, not a jab; she'll let him hurt her feelings -- if he lets her hurt his. Jane's goal is not victory but self-preservation in the war for love.
There is a good deal of humor in The Girls' Guide, and it succeeds even when the jokes fall flat -- which they often do. Jane's perception is so sharp, and her need for comic relief so palpable, that her lame quips become part of her charm. When she goes sailing in St. Croix at the end of a vacation that her boyfriend has ruined by flirting with a luscious ex-girlfriend, Jane brightly greets the sailboat captain, "Chips ahoy." In the last story, a clever exercise in which Jane sabotages a relationship by trying to conduct it according to the rules of a husband-hunting manual, she tells a friend who picks out a sexy dress for her, "You're my fairy godshopper." "Making jokes is your way of saying Do you love me?" Jane scolds herself. "When someone laughs you think they've said yes."
When Jane Rosenal first makes her appearance, she is 14 years old, waiting for her 20-year old brother to arrive at the family's summer place on the Jersey Shore. Henry pulls in the drive with a beard, a gift bottle of wine, and a 28-year-old girlfriend named Julia, who calls him "Hank." His newly grownup guise makes Jane feel she's been deserted. "You're Hank now," she says, aggrieved. "You bring Mom and Dad a bottle of wine." Still, Jane can't help falling for Julia, a wry and lovely children's books editor who looks, she thinks, like "Audrey Hepburn relaxing after dance class." When Henry breaks up with Julia because her poise and intelligence make him feel small, Jane is heartbroken. Julia is perfect, she reasons -- why wouldn't Henry want her? Julia explains, "Sometimes you're loved because of your weaknesses. What you can't do is sometimes more compelling than what you can," but Jane cannot be consoled. "It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone," she writes. "I had no idea myself how to do it."
The Girls' Guide covers two decades, and although most of its episodes describe Jane on her own -- holding down a job, losing a job, beginning a romance, ending a romance -- her family and the seaside remain at the core of her experience, buoying her and keeping her upright. When she loses her father to leukemia -- the title of this chapter, "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine," alludes to a mother-daughter team who are suspected of returning already-worn clothes to stores -- Bank rejects mawkishness. Instead, the illness imperceptibly, dynamically coaxes other long-deferred plans into life: Jane leaves New York to be with her father and mother, forces her brother to accept his family responsibilities, abandons her ailing, selfish lover, then quits her job for good and starts over. Young Jane complained to Julia that books for young girls were bad because they are "about what your life was supposed to be like, instead of what it was." In The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank accomplishes that hardest of simple things: She shows life as it is -- and makes it readable.
Another coming-of-age collection, My Father, Dancing, by Bliss Broyard, daughter of the late critic Anatole Broyard, will appeal to young women whose pasts are still works-in-progress. In "Girls' Guide," Jane reflects that one of her brother's girlfriends, Petal, "seemed light and sweet and sure of herself in the particular way a very young woman can." Petal could be any of Broyard's heroines -- Lily or Pilar, Bridget or Lucy; but Broyard shows the confusion that underlies the bloom, the need these young women have to test their sexual power without losing their fathers' approval.
In the title story, the narrator, Kate, recalls the times when she danced with her father in the kitchen or in bars, wriggling her new curves and trying out her moves on him. Now that he is dying, she asks herself if her mother minded. "When I was younger, I wondered if she was jealous," Kate says. "But now I could see that she must have liked to watch us." The disclaimer sounds convenient, not convincing: wishful thinking from a girl who doesn't want to admit, even to herself, how covetous she was of her father's favor.
Broyard's narrators bask in their parents' affirmation of their precociousness. One of the narrators confesses, "I am always willing to believe anything my parents tell me, so curious am I to understand the continuum of how I came to be the woman I am." Will the culture of praise that hothoused the girls serve the grown women well? The question is worrisome: In many of Broyard's stories the girls' only evident precocity is sexual; one fears they will get hurt. Pilar freezes out her steady boyfriend, saving her tenderness for steamy phone calls with a famous jazz musician. Bridget lets a frat boy exact sexual favors as damages after she hits him with her car. A nameless narrator has a one-night stand, then calls the boy, seeking another date. When he refuses, she asks, unguardedly, "Is this because I slept with you on the first night?" If it were an episode of "The Brady Bunch," you'd leave the room to avoid witnessing the humiliation -- but girls who are in the midst of trying to navigate their own first misadventures will appreciate Broyard's frankness.
The best story is the last, "Snowed In," in which the author throws a group of jaded but fragile rich kids into an unchaperoned house with a few six packs and a porno film, and watches them lose their bearings. Despite a decade of distance, or perhaps because of it, Broyard's command of the rules of teenage one-upmanship is flawless, and, her portrayals of the plump, uncool hostess, Cristal, and of the subtle struggle for dominance between the narrator, Lily, and another popular girl, Courtney, shine -- largely, one senses because, for once, they are not overshadowed by a towering father figure. Girls grow up dancing with their fathers, but sooner or later, they take the floor alone.
Liesl Schillinger is on the staff of the New Yorker.