Books

Coming-of-age novel stumbles

Reading is never done in a vacuum, and pity the book that follows a well-written, well-told story, because if it doesn't measure up, its shortcomings seem all the more stark.

"Anthropology of an American Girl" directly followed " The Cookbook Collector," and while the latter was a rich, beautifully written and engaging story, the former was a slow trudge up a gravel road.

"Anthropology" tells the story of Eveline Auerbach, from her high school years in the late 1970s on Long Island through her early adulthood.

It's a novel, but it's written more like a memoir, particularly in the earlier high-school parts, with Pearls of Wisdom and Insightful Observations on nearly every page. The thing is, though, pretty much anyone who's been through high school heartbreak, loss, uncertainty about the future and messy relationships knows these things. Popular kids are mean. Drugs can mess people up. Loving the wrong person can mess people up. The rich really are different. Life isn't fair.

And Evie herself seems remote, dulled, throughout the book. Major events happen in her life, but she doesn't seem to react very strongly to any of it, which in turn makes it harder for us to care.

Part of this is probably due to the slow pace of the book: pages go by without anything much happening; people have rambling conversations that never get to a point. Six hundred pages isn't too many if there's something compelling the reader to turn them.

But mix the plodding pace and numb narrator of "Anthropology" with clunky writing (for instance, "the train ambled into the station and landed on its chin like an exhausted bovine") and 600 pages turns into a mighty long slog.

***

"Anthropology of an American Girl" by Hilary Thayer Hamann (Spiegel & Grau, 606 pages, $26)

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