Mandahla: Anthropology of an American Girl

Where to start with this magnificent book? With the dazzling quality of Hilary Thayer Hamann's prose? With the themes of love and loss, trust and betrayal, innocence and maturity? With the tremendous satisfaction one feels at the end? There are so many ways to praise Anthropology of an American Girl, an exceedingly intense and passionate book; it's a romance in the grand sense, a rich, affecting experience.

The novel opens in the autumn of 1979, with Eveline and her best friend, Kate, bicycling to the beach in East Hampton, where they sit in the rain and contemplate their coming senior year. A few months earlier, Kate's mother, Maman, had died, a year after Kate's father; now Kate lives with Evie and her mother. Evie feels the loss keenly, since Maman was gentle and nurturing, traits her own mother lacks. Evie is also waiting for her boyfriend, Jack, to return from his annual Outward Bound summer. Jack, a musician, is a troubled soul who has been seeing shrinks since he was seven, and self-medicates with whatever's handy. Evie seems, at 17, preternaturally aware of the ways of the world, but she's had some bad experiences recently and has learned that "pain gets heavy when you carry it far from its source... pain becomes its own story." Soon life will have more pain for Evie; she is about to step off a cliff.

One afternoon, she meets Kate at her locker, where Kate says, "I think I'm in love." At that moment, Eveline turns and sees a man, "cleaving the air like an angry black slash." He smiles at her and lodges inside her like a bullet--a coup de foudre. He's the man Kate has fallen for--Rourke, the visiting drama coach.

Evie and Rourke meet by chance in a record store, but despite his interest and her desire, "we were impotent with respect to circumstance, and that made me angry, and my anger bound me to him. Rourke understood; he seemed angry as well." They continue to run in to each other. The romanticism of their chaste encounters is both heady and delicate, described in a young voice by a girl who feels a thrill just touching a piece of paper her beloved has written on. But there is a deeper current at work, a feeling of destiny, or maybe only vain hope. She watches him at rehearsal, she writes on her arm with a pen. In the darkened theater, they memorize each other's face. It feels like life and death in the drama of youth and absolutes. It's an impossible situation, until Evie graduates.

That summer, Evie and Rourke rent a cottage in Montauk. Summer, when all things seem possible and time is infinite, yet she knows that summer is not endless, and perfection is not sustainable; even though their age difference is only five years, it's a gap that Evie understands is unbreachable. "Each day there was a new day, with nothing carrying over from the previous one--when morning came through the window, it came as if by surprise. The sun would advance upon my skin, reminding me to be grateful, and his arms would take me tighter.... Had I been sentenced to death, I could not have interpreted time with a fiercer consciousness--every twilight seemed to be the last, every rain the final rain, every kiss the conclusive aroma of a rose, gliding just once past your lips."

She goes to New York University, studies art and takes up with Mark, the older brother of a classmate and an acquaintance of Rourke, eventually moving in with him. He provides luxury, money, a high-rise, vacations in Jamaica. "We drink Stolichnaya at Café Luxembourg, and we lament the decline of America. We blame groups.... When I say 'we' I do not mean me, though I cannot exempt myself insofar as I am present. When a pack of wolves mangles a carcass, it doesn't matter which one's not eating that much."

Life with Mark and his friends is '80s shallow, filled with coke and heroin and trust funds and women who prefer to capture men after they have settled down, as if "they can't trust themselves to determine on their own the worthiness of a partner." Evie sets herself as far apart as she can, remaining indifferent; only her continuing heartbreak keeps her alive. Rourke's best friend, Rob, looks out for her, a sustaining presence in her apathetic life. Rob is an anchor, a safe place for a girl adrift.

Throughout the novel, Evie's musings are laced with tart observations. She describes Montauk as a place where locals grow pot and celebrities hide like game in the cliffs. Contrasting the physical conceit of jocks with their intellectual timidity, she says, "Since it's unethical to turn them loose on society, they get sent to college to be kept out of the mix until their frontal lobes develop fully." A woman walking through a bar has a "ravishing ass ticking like a metronome set high." And "being female is always somewhat indelicate and extreme, like operating heavy machinery. Every woman knows the feeling of being a stack of roving flesh. Sometimes all you've accomplished at the end of the day is to have maneuvered through space without grave incident."

Thayer's prose is elegant and sumptuous, her eye for detail exquisite. Her depiction of snow: "Flurries were falling faster, toppling like butterflies shot from the sky. In the distance they fell fast, but near the house they scrolled and slowly scrambled, acquiring alarming new dimension." Or a fireplace: "The fire jumped irritably, carping and stuttering before hurling itself into an empire of nothingness." Or the darkly handsome Rourke: "He stepped forward, his body soaking emphatically through space like an inky spill." Her manner paints the story of Evie, Rourke, Jack, Mark and Rob with emphatic and tender strokes.

At one point Evie says: "I was an American girl; I possessed what our culture values most--independence and blind courage." Her life is not easy, it's not effortless, but love and friendship help steer her passage from girl to woman. She resists, she gives up, then finds her strength again. Sometimes the wisdom is hard-won, sometimes it springs from Evie's soul. In Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann has written a glorious and epic novel about integrity, heroism and abiding love.

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