Anthropology of an American Girl Virtual Book Discussion

Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann. Self-published in 2003; Published by Spiegel & Grau in 2010.

Synopsis: This coming-of-age first-person narrative follows the life of Eveline Auerbach from her high school years in East Hampton, New York in the late 1970s through her early adulthood in Manhattan in the 1980s. Central to the story is her love affair with Harrison Rourke, a high school drama instructor/professional boxer.  As Evie tries to find her place in the world, the novel becomes a highly personal, deeply moving account of American womanhood.

About the Author: Hilary Thayer Hamann was born and raised in New York – both in the Hamptons and the Bronx. She counts a BFA in film and television and an MA in cinema studies as some of her degrees and certificates. A very cool CV includes work as an assistant at the National Dance Institute, production of the short film We Real Cool based on a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, and coordinating an international exchange between arts students from the USA and the then-Soviet Union. She currently lives on Long Island.

My Initial Reactions to the Book

First of all, I loved this book – not so much for the plot, but for what it says about American society. At first I was a bit daunted by it being 600 pages, but with its casual language, it’s actually a relatively quick read in comparison to most epic novels. It is probably now among my top 3 favorite book club selections thus far.

The book is divided into 7 parts, beginning in 1979 and ending in 1984. When Evie’s in high school, I loved her commentary about some of the things Americans generally find important in high school life – sports, pep rallies, the prom, college prep. I could definitely relate to her awkwardness, and as you moved on to her college years, you could feel her growing up.

I loved what she says about the frivolity of the bourgeosie in America, how Mark thought he could buy Eveline’s love despite being a complete douche. Although her love for Harrison is central to the story, I almost wished she ended up with Rob – he was her truest friend and didn’t seem privy to the games that men sometimes play.

As Evie narrates her story, I enjoyed the social commentary on events of the day that is told largely through character dialogue. The character who is the best at this is probably Jack –

“Those assholes in Jonestown drank cyanide in Kool-Aid and squirted it into the mouths of babies because it dawned on them that Communism might not take off globally. I mean, if Marx and Engels couldn’t do it, if Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky couldn’t do it, what chance do nine hundred Moonies from broken military families have?” (page 87)

And when Reagan was elected president, the character Anselm notes:

“Look at any totalitarian regime. They succeed by feeding greed, inspiring terror, rewarding complicity. By eradicating shades of gray, by promoting contrasts – black-white, good-evil, in-out, us-them. For those who play, there is wealth, security, respect. For those who do not, there is the pathetic echo of their own enlightened by impoverished voices. It’s all theather, which is why there’s no better messenger for the moment than an actor.” (page 390)

The writing in this novel is absolutely brilliant. What’s most impressive is the history behind its publication. In 2003, the novel was originally published by Vernacular Press, an independent publishing company of which Ms. Hamann was founder and co-owner. After the book’s incredible success among readers who identifed with the awakening of its heroine and the awards and accolades it received, it was picked up by a major publishing house. This make me wonder if the author, like so many talented American writers out there, struggled to be recognized by the conventionalism that largely makes up the high-pressure New York publishing world.

Have you read the book, and if so, what did you think about it? Please post in the comments section below.

Next up for discussion is a recent novel by one of my favorite contemporary writers: The Lovers by Vendela Vida. Discussion begins March 24th.

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