My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this book in two big gulps yesterday. I heard Jami interviewed on the radio a few weeks ago, and I came in in the middle of the interview, and wondered just who the hell was this woman (in a good way)? She knew that she wanted to be a writer, she protected that with all her might. She considered herself blessed to know that. Taraji P. Henson recently said, "I am an artist to the bone."
Andrea Bern...is not that. An artist who has stopped making art (except for a project which I will NOT spoil for you), with a pays-the-bills but numbing job, an apartment in gentrifying Brooklyn. Random guys. Booze. And at almost 40, and single, she is not really "All Grown Up." Her activist feminist mother, long-widowed, cannot help herself from sending her one of those Why Are You Still Single books that "everyone" is reading. Everyone meaning: straight unmarried white ladies. The structure of the book is fascinating: mostly told in the first person, one striking bit in the second person, certain stories reflected and repeated. The timeline slightly out of joint. Like Andrea.
But Andrea is not likable. (This has come up in at least two reviews of read of the book--thankfully, after I read it.) She is not Sex and the City likable, and she is too old to be a problematic Girls' girl. She judges people hard, she lets down her family, she blows off her therapist, she drinks, she has sex with whomever. She does her work on autopilot. (She does love her food, though--the descriptions of the meals are terrific.) There are a couple of huge wounds to her soul, slowly revealed, but they arrive late in the book, and don't necessary point to the traditional "now I understand, now I am going to heal" narrative.
Andrea is a mess when we meet her. She quite crucially becomes a little less of a mess by the end of the book. The end.
But. See. This is why the book haunts me: because Attenberg pulls me directly into Andrea's mind and heart...and at the same time, challenges us with the narrative. From the opening pages, "All Grown Up" makes it clear that it is NOT going to be a self-improvement book, it is NOT going to be a rom-com, whatever manic pixie dream girl who now wants to play almost 40 and serious is NOT gonna want to be Andrea. And close to the end of the book, it throws down the narrative gauntlet again, by mocking yet another genre of self-help: the Meaningful Death book, which "everyone" is reading for another reason. Life defies the easy narrative structure. So does this book. So does Andrea Bern.
I will talk gender. Humbert Humbert is not a likable guy, but we come along for the stomach-churning ride. Mr. Ripley's talent? Is murder. And people cannot stop making movies about him. I believe we are still holding our female protagonists to a higher standard of behavior. Andrea's crimes are minor, and they are mostly committed against herself. She does not need to be forgiven, or improved. And I will never forget her.
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