New Fiction June 2006

Finds and flops

Finds and flops
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Sittenfeld, whose best seller Prep was an audaciously conventional story of adolescent angst, has produced another striking coming-of-age tale featuring a misfit with an unsettlingly intense personality. This novel spans fourteen years, during which Hannah Gavener nurses a smoldering resentment toward her mercurial father, struggles with chubbiness (her mother makes “overly enthusiastic comments about, for instance, celery”), and pursues her birthright, a boyfriend with whom she can share an “exclusionary glow.” In this sustained exercise in psychic discomfort, Sittenfeld dissects fleeting sentiments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Thus at college, the morbidly lonely Hannah refuses casual invitations because improv or a cappella groups are “kind of stupid,” and later regrets her prickliness.

Sittenfeld’s latest novel lacks Prep’s zip and verve. Without the claustrophobic microcosm of boarding school—the cliques, insider customs, and subterranean class issues—the far baggier Man of My Dreams drifts episodically along, propelled only by Hannah’s sullen musings. Fortunately, the meandering is often redeemed by Sittenfeld’s ability to evoke surprising details and fresh perspectives. Recalling an Alaskan kayak trip where she predictably alienated everyone, Hannah encapsulates her own plight by considering a lost pair of eyeglasses: “It is dark and calm down there; fish slip past; her glasses rest untouched, the clear plastic lenses and titanium frames. In the stillness without her, the glasses see and see.”

Like Hannah’s self-sabotaging efforts to connect, the novel almost willfully crashes and burns in its final pages. (The last chapter is ghastly: Hannah’s twenty-four-page letter to a former therapist, assessing her personal growth.) But this misstep doesn’t seriously mar Sittenfeld’s considerable achievement. Without inviting much sympathy, Hannah wins our admiration by mulishly insisting on her right to see, no matter how disquieting the sight.

Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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