—DALLAS MORNING NEWS by Carmela Ciaru
“This impressive debut is epic but not overwrought, and brilliant without the slightest hint of smugness.”
“Its concerns – heartbreak, self-discovery and loss—are universal.”
“Hamann has taken a familiar theme, coming of age, and created an utterly original novel.”
“On every page, Hamann's prose brims with energy and insight.”
“A rare kind of novel—at once sprawling and intimate—whose excellence matches its grand ambition.”
In 2003, Hilary Thayer Hamann self-published a novel, loosely based on her own life, with a hardcover print run of 5,000 copies. It sold out and became a cult hit.
Now Spiegel & Grau is publishing a substantially revised edition of Anthropology of an American Girl, with a gorgeous watercolor cover by the artist Leanne Shapton. This impressive debut is epic but not overwrought, and brilliant without the slightest hint of smugness. It has earned its pre-publication buzz, and then some.
Although Hamann has set the narrative in Long Island and Manhattan in the early 1980s, it could take place anywhere in the United States. Its concerns— heartbreak, self-discovery and loss–are universal. The precocious heroine, Eveline "Evie" Auerbach, tells her story as she navigates the pressures of teenage love and friendship at her East Hampton high school. "That was the same year I learned that everyone gets eyeglasses eventually and that there's no beginning to traffic," she says of her senior year, in a typically wry observation.
Anthropology follows Evie through college at NYU, where she studies art history, yet it's her high school years, filled with adventure, trauma and grief, that mark her indelibly. That's where she meets Jack, her tortured, nihilistic boyfriend, and Harrison Rourke (known as Rourke), a young substitute teacher and aspiring boxer whom her best friend, Kate, happens to be in love with. But Rourke is fiercely attracted to Evie, and their subsequent affair has a profound effect. "[I]f in his arms I was a woman," she says, "beyond them I was nothing."
Later, Evie moves in with her shallow, controlling boyfriend Mark, a Harvard MBA and Wall Street hotshot who gives her a BMW, fattens her bank account with thousands of dollars, fills the refrigerator with $30-a-pound smoked Scottish salmon, and generally makes her miserable. She knows which man she wants to be with (it isn't Mark), but fate conspires against her.
Meanwhile, Evie's relationship with her divorced parents is cordial at best. Her mother, she reveals, "seldom fawns on me. When she does, she does so excessively and briefly, like a toddler mothering a baby doll."
It's admirable that Hamann has taken a familiar theme, coming of age, and created an utterly original novel. She could have been reined in a bit; at more than 600 pages, Anthropology doesn't earn its length. (It could have been cut by 200 pages and still seem just as good.) The plot is meandering in parts, but then again, what happens is almost beside the point.
On every page, Hamann's prose brims with energy and insight – it's the kind of language that would make a good poet jealous: "The night was moonless but not entirely unkind." Or: "The preliminary azure cool of morning was coming up full around us, clear as the whistles birds make." Such precise details are exquisite.
Passionate, intense and too analytical for her own good, Evie constantly dissects the culture around her, determined to make her way on her own terms, no matter what anyone thinks. Above all, she's hoping to find love that's unaccompanied by grief, but she isn't counting on it.
At one point, she describes herself as possessing independence and blind courage. Those virtues also define Anthropology, a rare kind of novel—at once sprawling and intimate—whose excellence matches its grand ambition.