Hannah Gavener, the heroine of Curtis Sittenfeld’s second novel, is sweet, neurotic, and forgettable. She has no interest in being herself, and on a daily basis spots people she’d like to turn into. A “large and clumsy bird,” she lets simple social graces, like saying hi or giving a kiss, become as complicated as landing an airplane: People zoom in, “abortively” pull back, readjust, and make way for the “approaching mouth.” Every gesture is potentially humiliating.
Like Lee Fiora in Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, Hannah has a clear vision of who she’s supposed to be: one of those fun, popular girls who effortlessly say things like “thumbs up” and have “pleasingly bland” faces and “blond hair that’s fakish but not definitely fake.” The book covers 14 years of Hannah’s life—her parent’s divorce, college at Tufts, and her first couple jobs—and each chapter features an event that only loosely might be called a “relationship.” If a boy says Hannah looks pretty, or tells a story involving hugs or beds, she immediately imagines kissing, even marrying, him. She has a dreamy notion of romance and a highly practical method for getting there. Everything has to be choreographed and accounted for: nose hair, bad breath, B.O. “Is Hannah becoming ugly?” Sittenfeld writes. “If so, it seems like the worst thing that can happen; she is letting down her family and, possibly, boys and men everywhere.”
At times, Hannah’s anxiety disorder is more interesting than she is. While Lee Fiora makes piercing, uncomfortable observations about her snobby classmates, Hannah is more focused on herself and her ill-conceived concept of love: Men are bullies, women are wimps, and marriage means lifelong safety (and a doting companion to chop vegetables with). Enjoyable but morose, the book gives way to sugary psychoanalytic revelations: “I was the one who resisted. I wanted to hold happiness in reserve, like a bottle of champagne.” As Hannah learns to be more open-minded, she congratulates herself too much for recognizing that being single or black or gay is OK. The book is more convincing when Hannah is irrational and grumpy, still doing the “low-self-esteem shtick.” Her nervous energy is the best part of an otherwise formulaic coming-of-age story.