—BOOKBROWSE: Recommendations of the Year
"Languorous and intense, a page-turner that demands to be read slowly.”
“You should read this book in concert with another former American girl, or two, or seven, so you can discuss it as it unfolds.”
“This is a book that just might stir up dormant emotions from your own life, thoughts alternately welcome and discomfiting.”
“A forceful and nearly wordless relationship of pure sexual magnetism.”
“[Hamann’s] descriptions are gorgeous and inventive.”
“It felt almost like a memory, despite my many points of difference with the heroine. I now feel possessive of this book, and I will be eager to watch its fortune in the marketplace, eager to talk about it with other women, eager to know how well it fits over their own memories of themselves.”
Anthropology of an American Girl manages to be at once languorous and intense, a page-turner that demands to be read slowly, a story bathed in the golden light of Long Island with a dark thrum like an ocean undertow. If you were once an American girl, you should read this book. If possible, you should read this book in concert with another former American girl, or two, or seven, so you can discuss it as it unfolds.
This is a book that just might stir up dormant emotions from your own life, thoughts alternately welcome and discomfiting. Evie, the narrator, is an outsider in her social milieu. She is attractive in a dark, unconventional way, so she draws the gazes of many people but lacks the protective envelope of a group of friends. Her divorced parents treat her with benign neglect. She is artistic without being especially disciplined or directed. She belongs to no school clubs, plays no sports or instruments. "All that was mine for me," she admits, "was an excellence at manufacturing feeling—great feelings of autonomy as ordained by my culture versus conflicting inside ones of loneliness, ambivalence, and confusion."
Evie is painfully aware of her effect on others, but not always sure what to do when that attention throws herself back onto her own thoughts. "It was confusing, frankly, the way everyone stared at our bodies as they tried to erase the ideas of our bodies from our minds. We were supposed to get over ourselves, but no one was supposed to get over us." Her story begins when she meets an older man who has come to her school to teach drama for a year. As she sees him at the other end of a school corridor, "cleaving the air like an angry black slash," she feels an instant attraction.
What ensues is a forceful and nearly wordless relationship of pure sexual magnetism, an attraction so palpable that other people perceive it long before the two have even touched each other, a lust so strong that it can reorder the relationships of the people around them, namely Evie's boyfriend, Jack, and her best friend, Kate. Yet Evie and the older man cannot be together, for reasons which are never fully explained. "Despite his obvious interest and my real desire, we were impotent with respect to circumstance, and that made me angry, and my anger bound me to him. Roarke understood: he seemed angry as well." Yes, his name is Roarke and he is incapable of compromise, just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. The invocation of Ayn Rand continues throughout the book, yet has not been mentioned in any of the marketing or pre-publication reviews. Hilary Thayer Hamann edges awfully close to the precipice of pretension in her novel. This is a hazard of the trade when writing about teenage love, but she ups the stakes by making that love epic and principled. Yet Hamann is such a fine, controlled writer that I wondered if she was bringing me to these moments of stylistic excess precisely in order to make me feel the awkwardness of being seventeen.
In other places, her descriptions are gorgeous and inventive, as in this passage of driving through the night into dawn: "The ground ascended like a platform into day, and across it we shot, passing from one highway to the next—rolling west, rolling south, with the sun rising and the ellipse of the planet beneath." Hamann grants her narrator a wisdom that exceeds her age ("Pain gets heavy when you carry it far from its source, like a bucket of water hauled miles from a stream—it acquires a whole new value, which is the sum of its essence and your investment. Pain becomes its own story.") This has the striking effect of making time overlap in Evie's voice, as if she is simultaneously narrating the book as it happens and telling it retrospectively from the distance of many years. Similarly, I was never sure how seriously to take the Randian overtones of Evie and Roarke's romance; does Hamann borrow Rand's language in order to lend grandeur to her story, or to critique the absolute terms in which a young Evie views her choices? This imprecision in Evie's narration rendered the book as unresolved, as unanswerable, as many of my own teenage longings. It felt almost like a memory, despite my many points of difference with the heroine. I now feel possessive of this book, and I will be eager to watch its fortune in the marketplace, eager to talk about it with other women, eager to know how well it fits over their own memories of themselves.
—BOOKBROWSE: Reader's Guide
- The novel begins with a description of Eveline Auerbach and Kate Cassirer, teenagers who have been best friends since childhood. Discuss the nature of their friendship. Discuss the role of female friendship in the novel.
- Discuss the dissolving bonds of Eveline's early friendships as she journeys from the relative safety of childhood to the relative dangers, instability, and compromise of adulthood.
- Evie goes from being a poor girl living freely to being a wealthy young woman living a compromised life and sacrificing opportunities for fully realized life and love. What does the author seem to be saying about aspirations?
- There are three men in Evie's life: Jack Fleming, Mark Ross, and Harrison Rourke. Discuss her relationship with each. Why would the author choose to describe the life of a young woman in terms of the men she loves?
- When Eveline meets Harrison Rourke, she experiences a type of epiphany. She feels herself a part of life, and of living in a way she never had previously. How would you describe what it is that she experiences and what it means to her.
- The use of voice in this book has been described as Holden-Caulfield like. Talk about the importance of voice, and what the internal isolation does for the main character. Is her voice truthful? Does she reveal everything?
- The death of Jack represents a turning point for Eveline, and yet they had been separated for years at the time of his death. Discuss what the loss of Jack means to her character.
- Evie has a complicated relationship with her own mother, Irene, an intellectual and emotional free spirited rebel spawned from 1960s counter culture. How does she seem to come to terms with this in the end?
- Anthropology has been compared to literary classics. Discuss what makes a book a classic and whether or not you feel this book has the makings of one. This book is a fictional attempt to "observe" a girl in American culture. If this is an Anthropology of an American Girl, what does the novel appear to be saying about being an American, or a girl, or an American girl?