I had heard for weeks about “Anthropology of an American Girl” by Hilary Thayer Hamann, as it has garnered a lot of positive press recently as an anthem-of-sorts for the modern American woman. I finally decided to pick it up because it was one of the “Staff Picks” on the shelves at Book People in Austin, Texas. The staffer who chose it told me it was a great read for just about anyone, and that it might be especially appealing to those who liked “The Catcher in the Rye,” which I very much enjoyed. So, with these recommendations in mind and an entire two weeks to kill before the end of winter break, I picked it up.
This bildungsroman follows Eveline, a girl growing up on Long Island in the late 1970s, from the age of 17 onward. She is an artist—thoughtful and independent, damaged and sad, complex and sometimes overwhelmingly empty. She has been struck by personal tragedy, and yet is extraordinarily competent. She thinks deeply about the world around her, combining an intellectual’s aptitude for analysis and an artist’s capacity for emotion in reviewing the events of her life. Although the title and plot suggest that the text would read as a list of petty, teenage complaints, her observations struck me as extraordinarily insightful and almost heartbreakingly accurate.
It is in this way that Eveline is like many of those who will read about her: American women growing up in the suburbs in the post-feminist era. She speaks many of the unspoken, intangible thoughts that a majority of us—that is, American females—have left unspoken, or else heavily intellectualized. For instance, in a scene that stands out in my memory, Evie’s male high school classmates await their chance to participate in the long-standing school tradition of throwing erasers at a certain teacher.
“It was a preliminary test of gender loyalty, a distinct part of the male experience….It wasn’t girl tradition. Girls had no traditions—anyway, none that teachers and boys would participate in willingly,” Hamann writes.
There are many of these “ah-ha!” moments in Hamann’s book, moments in which Evie finally puts into words those amorphous ideas that have shaped the American female experience.
As the “The Catcher in the Rye” captured the immediate experiences of a disaffected young man exemplary of his 1950s generation and many to come, “Anthropology” evokes the unique paradigm that is growing up as a woman in post-feminist America. However, what makes “The Catcher in the Rye” a classic, and “Anthropology” a budding one, is its capacity to be specific yet universal. Though the character of Eveline and her observations are perhaps especially appealing and meaningful to someone like me (a white girl who grew up in an American suburb), I believe that there is something meaningful in “Anthropology” for everyone. Hamann is equal to only a few authors that I’ve ever encountered, including J.D. Salinger, at the task of encapsulating the myriad universal themes of the transition into adulthood.
This book is certainly a good read for a lazy weekend—though I wish you luck in finding one of those around Wesleyan.