Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sigrid Nunez's The Last of her Kind

Bad books are easier to discuss. They contain so much easy meat: lousy content, horrible sentences one can gleefully quote. I haven't had this opportunity recently. I suppose I should be grateful. Instead I am sitting here with my paperback copy of The Last of Her Kind, trying to conjure adequate descriptors.

The Last of her Kind is about Georgette George, a young woman fleeing her impoverished upstate New York childhood for the unknown world of Barnard University. There she rooms with Dooley Ann Drayton, a wealthy teenager who informs Georgette that she asked "specifically to be paired with a girl from a world as different as possible from her own." (3)

Ann--she immediately drops her family name--scorns her background, her parents, the bourgeouis complacency she sees around her. She attaches herself to Georgette with a fierce devotion, wanting to talk, talk, talk. Georgette scorns her roommate's obliviousness and strange ways. Ann dresses indifferently, eats little, even tries joining the one table of female black students in the cafeteria. When they refuse to acknowledge her, she tells Georgette:

"Now I know...And everyone should know how it feels. For me it was only an hour. Other people have to live their whole lives like that: never seen, never heard." (33)

It is the sixties, a time somebody like Ann may easily reject her social moorings. She becomes active in student protest organizations, quickly growing disillusioned and dropping out of college. She is briefly involved with underground activists, then meets Kwesi Kwame, an older Black schoolteacher. Her relationship with him leads to a confrontation with Georgette, estranging the women.

Georgette has also dropped out of Barnard. As one of the formerly oppressed, she is less interested in protest than survival. She finds work at a fashion magazine and begins a journey of her own: men, drugs, music, books and more books. She views her rape in Central Park less as a traumatic, lasting event than an occurence common amongst women her age. Her real worry is younger sister Solange, a teenage runaway, another statistic in an era of lost children. Their eventual reunion is both happy and heartbreaking, for though Solange has survived by her wits, she suffers bouts of mental illness. Georgette is her loving, despairing caretaker through years of hospitalizations and drugs.

Suddenly Ann appears in the newpapers: she has committed a crime, one that earns her a lifetime prison sentence. Refusing the well-heeled lawyers who could free her, she accepts her sentence with seeming relief. Once inside the Maryville Facility for Women, Ann teaches literacy, assists prisoners with their legal cases, and tends those falling ill with a strange, frightening new illness. (the one Prince dubbed "the big disease with a little name") Thus this complex woman once again takes up residence in Georgette's thoughts.

The women will be meet again, briefly, but to say more is to give away plot.

Nunez is a wonderful writer. The sentences are smooth, easy, often funny. Parenthetical asides wryly aid the plot:

"(I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.)" (196)

Commenting on the state-paid psychologist testifying at Ann's trial:

"(Oveheard: "I can't believe the state pays for this crap.")" (218)

In Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott comments on the necessity of a likable narrator. Actually, Ann Lamott comments on Ethan Canin's remarks, so I am commenting on both of them, which is just so meta-post-modernist that maybe I should get my Ph.D. in English after all:

"I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation he said, 'Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.' I think he's right. If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn't really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time." (49)

Georgette is a likable narrator; more than that, she is a likable person. Her take is indeed fascinating--alternately credulous, amused, sorrowful, loving. From her opening words as a bruised, frightened teenager to the end, when divorced and middle-aged, Georgette's voice compels us to keep reading. I am like you, she says. And I have a story to tell.

Works cited:

Ann Lamott: Bird by Bird. New York: Random House, 1994.

Sigrid Nunez: The Last of Her Kind. New York: Picador Books. 2005.


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