ANTHROPOLOGY OF AN AMERICAN GIRL by Hilary Thayer Hamann

Book Quote:

“Living in a world with men is like being in the center of a ring with hands spinning you in a circle. It’s like being spun, three-quarters one way, one-half the other, one full time back around. Wherever you land, there’s another set of hands.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JUN 14, 2010)

The “American girl” in the title of this novel refers to Eveline Auerbach, who, when the book opens, is a junior in high school. The novel is set in the late 70’s in East Hampton, New York.

Evie (as she is often referred to) suffers two big blows right off the bat. A strong maternal figure in her life, Maman, dies from cancer. Incidentally Maman’s daughter, Kate is a close friend of Evie’s. Second, Evie is raped by two high school classmates (for those squeamish about this, there is no graphic description here).

For the most part Evie spends her time hanging around with boyfriend Jack, a musician. Also, orphaned Kate moves in with Evie and her single mom so Kate can finish her senior year before joining her brother and his family in Canada.

Evie herself is an artist and spends time in her studio creating works of art and props for the drama department. It is through this department that in her senior year, she meets Harrison Rourke, an older man (I guessed he is ten years older than her) who is trying to make his way into the professional boxing circuit. Rourke is filling in for the drama coach for a term and he makes a lingering impression on Evie. The two fall in love and spend the entire summer in each other’s company. Both know, however, that the relationship has to come to an end—which it does at the end of the summer. Rourke moves on to whatever he does and Evie is left completely shattered. She finds herself with a new man in her life, Mark Ross, a rich and spoilt brat who is waiting to inherit his father’s fortune all while juggling a high powered executive job in New York City.

Anthropology essentially traces Evie’s story from her teenage years on to her growth into a young woman. Precisely because the story unfolds slowly and over a period of time you can see the many ways in which Evie matures and the beauty of it registers slowly.

Anthropology was self-published by the author a few years ago and it has since garnered a cult following. The reasons for this are not hard to see. The novel’s biggest asset is its writing which is just gorgeous. Evie’s voice too is very compelling. Her teen years are done especially well. “Boys will be boys, that’s what people say. No one ever mentions how girls have to be something other than themselves altogether,” Evie says. “We are expected to stifle the same feelings that boys are encouraged to express. We are to use gossip as a means of policing ourselves.” There are also many well-made observations about life in high school (even if Evie is hardly caught in the school), which are right on the button.

That having been said, there are many parts of the book that drag on and which could have used some more editing. Evie’s romance with Rourke for one thing goes on endlessly and while it does a good job of capturing the magical trance of being in love, it occasionally starts to feel too claustrophobic. You want to move beyond the frame, to have the story focus on somebody else for a change.

Evie’s years with Ross are also engaging in a different sort of way but you really begin to wonder why she stays with a guy she despises so much. Her hatred for Ross is blatantly evident: “If being in love is consolation when you are poor, money is consolation when you are not. Life is a trap not because I can’t leave Mark but because there’s no reason to.” Sheesh! After a while, one can even be forgiven for feeling sorry for Mark because he is so thoroughly disliked by the one that he seems to love.

What is unclear in the novel is exactly how the early tragedies that Evie faces, change her perspective about life. Hamann struggles to draw the line between these two moving tragedies and the events that unfold later.

Anthropology is about Evie’s gradual maturing and sexual awakening. So it makes sense that it would be about her romantic entanglements. Still it is discouraging to see Evie so utterly defined by her various lovers. Each part of her life described within these pages seems to be through the lens of a man: “At The Palm we will eat meat, and I will be made to speak.” After a while you want her to stand on her own feet and get a move on already.

This frustration might also stem from the fact that Evie hardly ever speaks—things happen to her and these various incidents form the backbone of the narrative. So Evie ends up being a mostly passive voice in the truest sense. Yet it is quite evident that the range of experiences women can have, or believe in, is on display here. “My mother went on welfare and worked as a waitress to put herself through night school, and my grandmother sent her children away when her husband died so she could work two full shifts a day. They each refused to remarry; they would not allow themselves to live off the beneficence of a man,” Evie says. “There’s a difference, I think, between a woman who would do that and a woman who wouldn’t.” Evie has very obviously seen the various parts of this argument and arrived at the place where she wants to be. Still you can’t help but walk away from Anthropology loving Evie’s voice but wishing it had more spunk.

Interestingly enough, Mark Ross’s mother is a volunteer for the National Organization for Women. She once worked with the stalwarts of the women’s liberation movement. It was one of these leaders, Gloria Steinem, who once said: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” One wishes that Evie imbibes some of that lesson into her own life. Yes, it’s true that everybody loves a lover. But being so needy and malleable just isn’t very sexy.

Editor’s note: Although I did not find Group Discussion Questions for this book,  it seems to me that this would make a good Book Club Choice.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 131 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau; Revised edition (May 25, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Hilary Thayer Hamann
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Try this one for contrast:

Bibliography:


June 14, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Debut Novel, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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