New Fiction June 2006

Finds and flops

Finds and flops
More

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.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In