Anthropology of an American Girl is a semi-autobiographical novel. It is the story of a young woman and her culture that strives for a measure of narrative depth, detail, and objectivity. It follows its protagonist, Eveline Auerbach, as she moves through a pre-digital American landscape during the 1970s and 1980s. In the most basic respect, it is a coming of age story that prescribes a return to simplicity as the most rational and ethical response to the chaos and confusion of upward mobility.
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A coming-of-age novel that cuts through the tangles of early adulthood
To take the easy route and borrow from Tom Petty, you could say Eveline Auerbach, coming of age on Long Island in the late ’70s, was just “an American girl raised on promises.” You’d be half right. While pop music penetrates Hilary Thayer Hamann’s lyrical novel, pouring from sports cars and East End bars on hot summer nights, it can’t tell the whole story.
As a young American girl, especially in New York, Eveline felt she “possessed what our culture valued most — independence and blind courage.” Rough stuff; like discovering the Northwest Passage with Ways of Seeing and Cosmopolitan as guides. Eveline’s bohemian upbringing — an East Hampton barn from which she and friends come and go; an internship at the influential Mary Boone gallery during the heyday of the downtown art scene — makes her seem canny and self-sufficient like many native New Yorkers (who seem to grow up a little faster than everyone else), but she’s not immune to the heartbreak and embarrassment that all of us endure. Hamann, who originally self-published American Girl in 2003, cuts through tangles of early adulthood with a sharp — even youthful — eye for romance, giving a fresh spin to a time-honored but mundane coming-of-age tale. Eveline’s desires and limitations are viewed through a series of loves: Jack, an amateur philosopher; Harrison, a disaffected preppy alpha with Edward Cullen’s propensity for just showing up and look intense; and Mark, a yuppie. (This is early ’80s Manhattan, after all — turn up the Genesis.) Somewhere in between she finds herself.
It’s easy to view Eveline as Holden Caulfield with a lobster roll, especially when you hear her quips: “Everything I did was pretty good but off-center”; “You’re old when you join the sticky, stenchy morass of concealed neediness that is society”; “The female body was our worst handicap and our best advantage — the surest means to success, the surest course to failure.” But rich narrative adds new findings to this anthropological study. Throughout, Rebecca Lowman’s understated narration focuses on the delicate nature of growing up.