Originally self-published several years ago, Hilary Thayer Hamanns first (and this far, only) novel, Anthropology of an American Girl, caught my attention upon its 2010 hardcover publication.
Hamann's personal biography, according to her website, shares a number of details with that of her American Girl, Eveline (Evie) Auerbach. ...(B)orn and raised in New York. Her parents divorced when she was three and she was shuttled between their respective homes in the Hamptons and the Bronx. She attended Sag Harbor Elementary School, East Hampton High School, and New York University...She was actively involved in the community theater of the East End from age 9 until age 19, participating in the productions of at least 30 plays, including several at Guild Hall...
Hamann's bio doesnt include whether her high-school boyfriend was a gifted musician with a drug problem, whether her first, and defining, love was a drama coach/professional boxer several years older than she was, or whether she was once engaged to a yuppie investment banker who treated her as a prize. While there are autobiographical elements, Anthropology IS a novel, so the reader hopes that a good chunk of the story really is fiction. Evie's story should be her own.
And while it is her own, at the same time, Evie's story isnt particularly unique - and that's what makes it resonate. The struggle to define oneself as one emerges into adulthood is pretty universal, and can be especially challenging for young women who have defined themselves in relation to men first. Young love affairs, particularly those which are truncated for one reason or another, have a tendency to assume a consuming, almost tragic, importance in one's personal history. As she works toward becoming herself as a student, an artist, a friend, and an individual, Evie continues to see herself in terms of her relationship with Harrison Rourke.
A reader's response to the relationship between Evie and Rourke will probably affect her response to the novel as a whole...and I admit I had issues with it. Part of that comes from my own objections to significant age differences: this relationship starts when Rourke is in his mid-twenties and Evie is seventeen - and at those ages, the difference is significant. (The fact that Rourke was casually dating Evies best friend Kate at the time - also a high-school student - is pretty well glossed over, but I think thats in keeping with the self-absorption of an adolescent first-person narrator.) The heightened intensity and romanticizing of the relationship is in character, but it bothered me in part because, as a result of it, I never felt I got a good sense of who Rourke was as a character. I didn't feel that Hamann made the relationship as profound to me as it clearly was to Evie; I just couldn't see it as much more than strong attraction. Evie seems to see herself as an object of attraction quite frequently, actually, and that got under my skin as well. While that may well be a legitimate part of her work to define herself, I've rarely seen myself that way and just cant relate to it, so please be aware thats strictly a personal reaction.
Despite all that, I really did like Evie as a character overall, and I found some of the supporting characters quite appealing, particularly Evie's screwed-up high-school boyfriend Jack and Rourke's friend Rob Cirillo, the MBA with family ties in New Jersey. The story spans the time frame from 1978 to 1984, a period when I was roughly the same age as Evie, which gave my reading of it a specific context and made many of the references click; I thought Hamann's evocation of time and place was quite effective. The novel is rather sprawling and wanders a bit in the middle; I liked the first and last sections best, and frankly, the whole thing is probably longer than it needs to be. The writing in some places displays some first-novel self-consciousness, but it includes some insightful observations and authentic-sounding dialogue in others.
Anthropology of an American Girl is an absorbing, affecting, imperfect, convention-tweaking coming-of-age novel, and despite its length, it's worth sticking with to the end - and it will stick with you after that, whether you love it or hate it. While in the midst of reading it, I had both reactions...more than once. But in the end, I think I'm coming down on the love side.