Sliding Mores

Is going braless good for you? Nunez's new novel deftly evokes the '60s and '70s

Sigrid Nunez is my kind of historical novelist. No huge, multigenerational sagas for her. Nunez's books tend to be slender and nimble, sifting through the past in unexpected ways. Her debut novel, A Feather on the Breath of God, led the reader on a gossamer journey through the half-remembered world of the narrator's immigrant parents, while Mitz offered a portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf through the eyes of their shrewd pet marmoset. More recently, For Rouenna reflected on the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, glimpsed between the lines of a relationship between a former combat nurse and a novelist.

At 375 pages, The Last of Her Kindis denser than Nunez's previous books, but no less intimate in its approach to memory and the past. It begins in the fall of 1968 with Dooley "Ann" Drayton arriving for her freshman year at Barnard. A wealthy girl plagued by class guilt, Ann had requested a roommate "from a world as different as possible from her own"—hoping to be paired up with a black student. She's disappointed to find herself rooming with the novel's plainspoken narrator, Georgette George, a poor white girl from the backwoods of New York State. Ann yearns to shed her privileged skin, quickly selling off her expensive clothes and dropping the name Dooley (linked to her family's slave-owning past). But she doesn't realize that her very approach to the world—her sense of power and possibility—stems from her affluent upbringing. As Georgette writes, "I, for example, would never have believed that I could have had any say in my choice of roommates." Despite all this, the two girls become friends during a transitional moment—for them and the country. The Last of Her Kindevokes a time when young women's values changed at breakneck speed. Ann throws herself into the melee like a dervish; Newsweek even includes her in an article on the new breed of student revolutionaries. Georgette, on the other hand, is just another anonymous undergrad who drifts through a few political meetings but never gets too involved. Ann plans to change the world, but Georgette is burdened by more personal worries: her ailing mother, her brother in Vietnam, and her 14-year-old runaway sister, Solange, who disappeared the week before Woodstock.

Nunez's most impressive feat may be that she makes the hard-to-love Ann so riveting. A one-woman Maoist self-criticism tribunal, Ann grows increasingly rigid and self-sacrificing. After a big meal, she does penance by skipping the next three—not to look like Twiggy but out of sympathy for starving Africans. Every experience becomes raw material for Ann's do-gooder instincts; even the most humiliating episodes, like being shunned by the black girls in the Barnard cafeteria, become "teachable moments." Ann's obsession with ideological purity—which later lands her in prison—probably seems ludicrous to today's readers. But Nunez's crusading heroine feels entirely plausible, both a real, singular person and a product of her times.

Nunez: Teachable moments
photo: Marion Ettlinger
Nunez: Teachable moments

Georgette's contemporary, personal voice puts the reader at ease, too, lending The Last of Her Kinda distinctly memoirish feel. Leaping between past and present, she never allows us to wallow in some sepia myth of the '60s and '70s, though she shares our amazement at the chasm between those days and our own. But it's the lovingly etched details that make this novel hum, like the description of a speed-fueled paper-writing session in which Georgette's insecurity gives way to manic, fleeting self-belief: "Cigarette clenched between teeth, I poise my hands over the Smith Corona like a pianist about to fill the hall with Bach. Another rush. I hit the keys. 'Why The Great GatsbyIs Not a Great Book.' " Or her disarming description of the place where she was raped in Riverside Park: "a dark, cozy green enclosure, like the entrance to a hobbit dwelling, or a perfect little rape room." Here, as elsewhere in the book, Georgette steps out of the narrative to confess authorial ambivalence. "I don't mean to be flippant," she insists. "I'm just trying to find a way that I can tell about this."

The novel loses some of its momentum after the girls leave college and grow apart. Georgette floats through the '70s as the beauty editor at a women's magazine, and later lets her career fall by the wayside to marry a famous critic and raise children. Needless to say, Ann disdains the superficiality of her old friend's life, but Georgette's focus on the personal is now more in step with the American mainstream.

Nunez illuminates Georgette's complex but commonplace adulthood with astute nuances. Ann, meanwhile, develops into a vaguely mythical creature, a late-20th- century Simone Weil or Teresa of Avila whose fate is conveyed via secondhand reports: an interview with her lawyer in the Voice, for instance, and a moving essay by a fellow inmate. She's ascetic and uncompromising, the last gasp of '60s revolutionary optimism, but she comes with enough heavy-handed idea-mongering to tip the novel's delicate balance. Poor Georgette is left in the shadows, an ordinary woman forever looking back at the past and wondering what she missed.

 
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