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Anthropology of an American Girl


Anthropology of an American Girl

ANTHROPOLOGY OF AN AMERICAN GIRL is a perfect example of just how much the publishing landscape has changed in the past couple of decades. Originally self-published in 2003, it became a word-of-mouth sensation at the time, admired for its frank, honest, often painfully intimate portrait of a young woman's interior life. Even a few years earlier, a novel like this one would have languished for lack of a publishing contract. Instead, Hilary Thayer Hamann's debut earned her a (well-deserved) measure of fame and, eventually, a book deal. Now the book has been repackaged, revised and re-released for a whole new, much larger audience.

The novel has been compared numerous times to J. D. Salinger's CATCHER IN THE RYE. Both are coming-of-age stories that feature observant, memorable narrators. But that's where the similarity ends. Eveline Auerbach, the narrator, is definitely her own woman, coming of age at a very specific and challenging time for young women in America. Her struggles and challenges arise organically from her particular circumstances, and her voice is entirely her own.

When we first meet Eveline, she is a grieving high school student in the Hamptons, mourning the loss of her best friend Kate's mother to cancer. She called Kate's French mother "Maman" and in many ways saw "Maman" as preferable to her own brilliant but impetuous and insecure mother. She is also mourning the loss of her own innocence, still reeling from being raped at a party and suffering the inevitable loss of reputation that results. It is 1979, after all, when the women's movement is still something you see on television and read about in the papers rather than a phenomenon that is making a pragmatic difference in ordinary women's lives.

Much of Eveline's frankly intimate narration illustrates her attempts to make sense of her place in this world, one that is often hostile toward and/or confusing for women. As a teenager, the photo editor for the yearbook, she observes the cheerleaders she photographs: "There was something beautifully paradoxical about them. They dressed the way girls are supposed to dress, in earrings and ruffles, with blue eye shadow and permanent waves. Yet they were not so ladylike, and the things they did with their bodies were insane. They were powerful and athletic…. The flying part depressed me. Just how far they would go for their team. How there are no teams in the real world for women like that." Later, as a young woman struggling to make her way in the Manhattan artist community, Eveline observes the women in her circle: "Women who have suffered use talk as a way of addressing the baffling sea at their feet. They talk to make the abstract real…. They talk to reclaim the pride they feel they've lost."

To those who have read widely in the history or theory of American feminism, many of Eveline's pronouncements may seem obvious or simplistic. Indeed, to any reader, her narration may come across as somewhat naïve when viewed through a 2010 lens. But her simplicity, earnestness and genuine desire to make sense of her world even as she muddles through it is what gives the character her charm. Readers who surrender to Eveline's voice will be treated to a perceptive and unforgettable portrait of a young woman coming of age in a particular time and place, one that may seem like ancient history now but still possesses currency for contemporary women.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 14, 2011

Anthropology of an American Girl
by Hilary Thayer Hamann

  • Publication Date: June 14, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • ISBN-10: 0385527152
  • ISBN-13: 9780385527156