Nunez, Sigrid. The Last of Her Kind. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. F;10/17.
It’s been a long time since I’ve absolutely adored a book from beginning to end. And this novel was another not-quite-enthralling rollercoaster experience for me. From an exalted start (the author presumably having laboured her whole life to get there) a ride began that got me thinking Nunez was another Nabokov. But partway through I began sensing that the fun was losing momentum and developing a disappointing Harlequin Romance feel, reminiscent of what I sensed in some of Elena Ferrante’s work. But then things picked up again as though the coaster had taken on extra energy from somewhere and was going to do some unprecedented and wonderful things. Which in a way it did.
Two bright girls become roommates at Barnard, the women’s college at Columbia University, in about 1968. Brilliant, wealthy and powerful Ann, her first name changed from the family handle her parents gave her, arrives from Connecticut with a rich girl’s wardrobe but gives away or sells the clothes and develops a pro-black, anti-affluence, politically radical persona. Georgette (“George”) is a smart girl from a poverty-stricken town in upstate New York where teenagers spent their time avoiding unemployed, alcoholic, abusive parents and everyone was concerned mostly with survival. The girls become friends and George marvels at Ann’s brilliance while Ann envies George’s “real” upbringing.
Both girls drop out of school in second year and then lose touch with one another. George works for a women’s magazine and marries a psychiatrist she meets after her pretty sister Solange, who runs away from home at age 15, returns years later an addicted promiscuous hippy chick with mental health problems. Ann marries a black schoolteacher, and as George leaves her first husband and then marries an arrogant philandering literary critic Ann kills a policeman who is allegedly about to shoot her husband.
George describes a surprising deeply enthralling love affair she had, and publishes in her deceased husband’s literary magazine a long article about Ann written by a lifer in prison with her.
Sigrid Nunez was 55 when she wrote this book, and a teenager during the late 1960s. She went to Columbia University around 1970, and this story sizzles with historic realism. I’m four years older than the author and the characters feel familiar to me, dealing as we all did in those days with the immolation of our parents’ understanding of the world by the politics and mores we thought we had invented. More than just playing bad with transgressive sex and drugs, we made our choices among options offering to replace everything the old sick world stood for in our minds. Wealth was garbage. 50s optimism was a Disney fairytale. America, all authority in fact, was Satan and its social and economic structure had to be overturned so that everyone’s life could be wonderful, which seemed in university in the late 1960s not only obvious but easy to achieve.
Author Nunez goes on too long in describing some of the events of the story. I felt that flagging of momentum I’ve described reading about Solange’s adventures on the road and then her life when she returns to live with her sister. The same applied for me to the prisoner’s story about Ann. But the attractive unusual approach to storytelling that I found in Nunez’s short story The Blind in the Paris Review breathes life into her characters and what happens to them in this novel. I couldn’t find online much about Nunez’s life. She went to Barnard/Columbia at about the time her fictional characters did. But did she marry? Have kids? Was she a lesbian? I don’t know.
There is a lot going on in this story beyond the dead-on description of the time I was in university. The contrast of the two girls’ background experiences dissects the ideas of two classes. Both secretive (one pretending nothing is wrong, the other warning children “don’t let the pack know you’re hurt”), both encumbered with simplistic ideas about men and women (from “don’t worry your pretty little head” to physical abuse, from a man who abandons his only real love to one who can’t stop talking down to women).
George doesn’t understand Ann’s idea about have-nots:
(that they were) closer to God, that (they) alone possessed the truth about life, and that (their) spirit was greater than that of all those who had never known (their) wretched condition, a condition that was to be envied and imitated – this idea was completely alien to me.
Sex and feminism in the 60s and today are contrasted. Rape, now a politically hot topic seemed in the 60s almost irrelevant. Girls like Solange awash with the novelty of sexual freedom happily “balled” just about anything with a penis. There was a certain innocence to that which has since ripened into the conviction that boys and men are testosterone-poisoned criminals who need to be brought to account.
I like Sigrid Nunez’s writing. There are fearlessly idiosyncratic turns of phrase (George the narrator has a headache in the luncheon scene with Ann’s parents, listening to the elevator type music in the restaurant, and then is patronized by the mother. “My head was hurting on Both Sides Now”). She breaks the fourth wall or, more like, pushes aside the curtain at times:
Now comes the part where I tell about Love. Here’s some advice I once read, from one writer to another: “The trick is to be cold about the hottest thing there is: love”. But that writer was talking about fiction… I cannot accomplish this difficult thing unless “I” becomes “she”. (and then we hear about the love affair, described in the third person)
There is a lovely gesture toward the effect of aesthetic experience, when after seeing a compelling movie with her sister, George meets by chance someone she has known from the past who becomes the only real love she has in this story. When as they stand on the sidewalk in front of a bookstore he gets emotional over shared experiences, she “boldly” takes him by the arm and leads him to a café. There they sit down and first appreciate their attraction to one another. That their coincidental meeting is critical to the plot doesn’t matter beside the beautiful idea that the film put George in a certain frame of mind and that events – which wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t seen the film – followed as a result.
Finally, a last word about a comparable piece of fiction. The Girl Who Lied, a short story by Uche Okonkwo in volume 5 of Ploughshares Solos Omnibus, follows a pre-pubescent girl from a very rich influential family through a semester in a private school, where she is befriended by a narrator from a family of much more modest means. The rich girl is charismatic but clearly troubled. Malcolm Gladwell commented in David and Goliath that kids tend to do better, academically and in life, as family income increases, but only up to a point. Children of very wealthy parents face the paradoxical special problems that arise from never having to face adversity. Obviously this is fertile fictional soil.
I was sorry when this rollercoaster ride was over even though there had been some slow going. I’d like to know more about Sigrid Nunez. I suspect she sees herself as not in the top echelon of creative genius, and I also imagine that for her that could’ve been a self-fulfilling prophecy as it is for many people. This conjecture of mine reminds me of my thought about Joseph Mitchell. It seems some writers are better than they think they are.