Anthropology of an American Girl is a fierce, driven novel that spills all onto its 600 pages. New York author Hilary Thayer Hamann holds nothing back, pouring out her story with a straightforward simplicity and intensity. Her terrain is contemporary, her time is the late 1970s and early 80s, and she provides, at last, a female counterpoint to the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and the former literary brat pack.
The novel opens with its protagonist, Eveline Auerbach, entering her last year of school in late 70s Easthampton. In the next pages, we witness everything familiar about American high schools: the cafeteria, the prom, the drugs. Then Eveline graduates and moves to Manhattan. She gets involved with a stockbroker and lives in the rich tonied world of 80s Wall Street.
What Hamann brings to this world is a woman’s voice that is fresh and full of feeling. Eveline, although far from Pollyanna, is no typical chick-lit woman seeking handbags and shoes at the expense of all else. Unlike many contemporary women in fiction, she takes other people seriously. She takes them so seriously she finds it hard to move on from them. She remains as attached to her first boyfriend, a troubled kid who ends up on heroin, as she is to her second, the improbably named prizefighter and drama teacher Rourke.
There is something young adult about Hamann’s writing. “Outside my window,” she writes, “the skies are marbleized blue-black, like out of mythology.” When Eveline meets Rourke, she sounds like Bella in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight: “Rourke came toward me, and the room behind him collapsed in the wake of his steps. He touched down at the bench on my left. He was close, his leg brushing my leg, the scent of him captivating me. I could almost hear his blood, the cadence; in my mind I trailed its avenue.”
Ultimately, however, the novel transcends the young adult through the sheer force and stamina of its character. Eveline has values, and when she fails to live by them, she suffers. When Rourke at one point leaves her, she falls in with her stockbroker friend. He offers her money and the high life. Part of her enjoys this, and she stays with him because of it. But the other part comes to loathe not only him but herself. Eveline goes from justifying herself to accusing and, finally, berating herself. She is a “compromise” – and at her worst a kind of “whore”.
Anthropology of an American Girl prompted me for the first time in my years of reviewing to contact its author, to tell her by email of my relief at her character’s final choices. She replied that she wanted Eveline to have something “sustainable”. What is sustainable about Hamann herself is her absolute earnestness, and her willingness to open her veins, as they say, on the page.
For some, the high school years may go on too long; for others, the occasional patriotic American mumblings might grate. From almost trite beginnings, however, the novel attains a gravitas that is unexpected and welcome. Eveline, in the end, is more George Eliot than Jane Austen, and it is a difference that makes this book a remarkable, honest and vivid achievement.
It may also be why it is being brought out now by established publishing houses, having been initially self-published in 2003. Its first edition of 5000 sold out, with young women responding to Eveline’s sensitivity, Hamann believes. They might also recognise her vulnerability. Obviously an attractive girl, she is not so much courted by men as hijacked by them. “Living in a world with men,” Hamann writes, “is like being in the center of a ring with hands spinning you in a circle. Wherever you land, there’s another set of hands.” It is the kind of observation that lifts Anthropology of an American Girl into its own arresting territory.
ANTHROPOLOGY OF AN AMERICAN GIRL, by Hilary Thayer Hamann (Allen and Unwin, $37.99).