—MEDIA/CULTURE REVIEWS, AUSTRALIA
“Putting this book down before the end induces a painful, tearing sensation.”
“Anthropology of an American Girl gives you a heightened form of life and real life is hard to accept afterwards.”
“Like Bronte and Salinger, Hilary Thayer Hamann takes us deep inside the life of a strong, unconventional character who wants to separate truth from lies.”
“Eveline is a wonderful, deeply felt character.”
“Hamann takes us on from first love to the big one—the great transforming.”
“The sensuality between the two of them is entirely convincing.”
Don’t start reading this book when you have a dinner to cook. Or a paper to write. Or a sleep to look forward to. Because it won’t happen. Putting this book down before the end induces a painful, tearing sensation. I hate pain so I stayed up a day and a night to finish it. Now there’s no more to read; I have a crick in my neck; there’s a pile of unwashed laundry to deal with, and a long, weary commute to town on an overheated train. Anthropology of an American Girl gives you a heightened form of life and real life is hard to accept afterwards.
Other readers have obviously felt the same way about it. The cover of the book and the inner pages are full of quotes from reviewers who sound as though they are stoned. ‘If publishers could figure out a way to turn crack into a book, it’d read a lot like this,’ reads one.
Others compare it to Jane Eyre and to Catcher in the Rye. Unlike both of those titles, it’s a big fat book. Size isn’t everything—I think it’s worth mentioning because some people like fat books and some don’t. But I do see a parallel to both those very different books. Like Bronte and Salinger, Hilary Thayer Hamann takes us deep inside the life of a strong, unconventional character who wants to separate truth from lies. Unlike Holden Caulfield, Hamann’s heroine, Eveline, is not a cynic though she would agree that kindness is more important than money. Unlike Jane Eyre, Eveline is no plain orphan girl, but she loves her man with the same great, hopeless, yearning love.
Anthropology of an American Girl is a love story in three phases, almost three books, set in the 1980s. The opening phase is the highly dramatic meeting in a high school setting, where Eveline is a student and Rourke is a drama teacher. Phase two is the consuming love affair between them, when he appears not to be a drama teacher but something more mysterious. In the final phase, the lovers are torn apart and Eveline drifts into a dismal relationship with Mark, a man who is as wealthy as he is shallow and cruel. I hate breaking it down into the story like this because it is immediately obvious (and was partially so as I read) that there are some very corny things about this story, which is part schoolgirl romance, part suspense novel. And not only is it corny but there are various unresolved questions about plot and character. I never really worked out why Eveline did go out with the awful Mark, for example. Probably for these reasons, Hamann’s book couldn’t find a publisher when she first set it out into the world. She finally self-published and found herself with a best-seller on her hands.
But this is no Twilight. Eveline is a wonderful, deeply felt character with an interesting view of the world. And through her eyes we vividly re-experience the world of school with its horrors and discoveries and intensity. This first section, when Eveline is a child, is the jewel of the book. The opening quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr tells us that ‘High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.’ And it is in that spirit that Hamann takes us back to school. Her book is about America, what it dreams of, how it fails itself and what it might become. Eveline is the eyes through which we see it. She is a glowering, independent girl, an artist, a watcher, a thinker, a lover of nature and beauty. She was ‘sorry not to know more about current events [but] consoled by the fact that I could mould a finch from clay and recount in detail the aroma of a half-dead oak leaf’. She has her doubts about the world but none (at first) about her boyfriend, Jack. Jack is the idiot savant of the story, the honourable rebel, the truth teller. He is the victim of American consumerism and its neglect of the earth and its children. And yet he is someone very real—irritating, loveable, infuriating, memorable. The love between Eveline and Jack is truthful and fine.
But Hamann takes us on from first love to the big one—the great transforming, Jane and Rochester love between opposites. She is interested in exploring different kinds of love and of friendship in this book and that is part of the engrossing fun of it. Rourke is not as convincing as Jack but what do you want? He’s sexy, commanding and he’s the one. Who needs to know much more? The sensuality between the two of them is entirely convincing and I waited and yearned for Rourke while Eveline was banished interminably into the desert of family life among corporate tycoons with the evil Mark. She is a great observer of the experience of women in that world, where a beautiful body is the only asset required:
"Of course, being female is always indelicate and extreme, like operating heavy machinery. Every woman knows the feeling of being a stack of roving flesh. Sometimes, all you’ve accomplished by the end of the day is to have maneuvered your body through space without grave incident." (pg. 204)
She’s also a witty, sardonic observer of the parties and discos of the eighties:
"Hips moved across the dance floor exactly at the height of my eyes. The hips belonged to normal people having normal fun. I wished I were one of those people. I wished I’d left the building when we first arrived. That’s the appeal of drinking and drugs—leaving but staying. It was good that I didn’t have anything more than a beer. Sometimes you see some girl slooped up against a wall, half unconscious. Basically she felt the way I did, only she’d got her hands on liquor and drugs. I looked around for Mick Jagger. He’d been to the Talkhouse several times. That would be good, to see Mick Jagger—you know, like, not a totally wasted night." (pg. 247)
Anthropology of an American Girl isn’t a profound book but it’s full of small wise or perverse observations. It’s idealistic, witty, compelling, passionate and delightful. This edition is published by Allen and Unwin, seven years after Hamann’s book crash landed into the American publishing world. According to the publicity blurb for the Australian edition, Hamann suspects that ‘Eveline is precisely the sort of mindful renegade and cowgirl searcher who will resonate with Australian readers’. I think she’s probably right; I’m certainly glad to have discovered her.