The Last of Her Kind: Perrrrrrrfect!!!
whoa, feeling kind of nutty over here.
I’m calling The Last of Her Kind as my best book of 2009.
It’s magically delicious.
Don’t try and catch me on a technicality.
Yes, it’s a 2006 book. (So?)
In fact, a best book of 2006 by the Chronicle and Editor’s Choice by the NYT in the same year.
I did not ever, ever promise you cutting edge.
I promised good.
The credit goes to my sister-in-law, who thrust it into my hand at Barnes & Noble in Chicago a few weeks ago and commanded: “Here. Buy this.” (Remember, I also stole her Lorrie Moore, so maybe she’s just protecting her hardbacks). She reads everything, so no need to ask what it was about–I did as I was told.
Here’s what the back of the cover would have said (basically) had I read it before buying: two unlikely college roommates at Barnard College–Ann & Georgette–meet in 1968. It’s the start of a long and stormy friendship. Ann (formerly Dooley, a preppy name she rejects just as she rejects her privileged white upbringing) wins the lottery with Georgette when she asks for a college roommate that is as different as possible from herself. Georgette hails from a ‘bleak’ town in upper New York, a life full of deadends, a crazed mother and apparently, a lot of booze. When no one can seem to live up to Ann’s idealistic standards for living a just and proactive life, the two have a falling out. But their relationship does not end there–the book traces the women’s connection over a lifetime. From afar, George watches her friend convicted of a violent crime, sensationalized in the press and still feels the impact of Ann in her life even as Ann sits, unchanged to the end, in a prison cell.
So What to love, what to love, what to love about this book. Here’s a few:
1. Masterful telling of a crazy era.
Ingrid Nunez gets the 60s and early 70s–racism, feminism, radicalism, protests and free love–painted in the backdrop without seeming trite, nostalgic or preachy. It reads more like a memoir, with an objective perspective of the landscape, rather than passing a moral message about this chapter in history. She combines her words so artfully, you think you start to see the images, hear the soundtrack. She taps into the mental picture we already have of this time.
2. A powerful first person voice.
Probably every book I truly love is written in the first person. George has an easy cadence as the narrator, like you are sitting in a coffee shop across from her and she’s telling you how the whole thing played out. She interrupts herself, gets ahead of herself, cynically reflects, stumbles as she remembers new things–all in a way that makes you feel a part of an intriguing conversation.
3. Unpredictable changes in narrators (which works. take that Oscar Wao).
Georgette inserts her sister’s crazed letters to Mick Jagger to bring her sibling’s schizophrenia to life. When she gets to a particular painful and intimate chapter in her own life, she informs you she is going to switch to third person because it is too awkward to talk about herself in those terms. (It sounds corny, but god it works. Like a friend telling you something you trust). She inserts an article written by a prisoner for a magazine to bring Ann even more fully to life. George gets all the bonus of being a great narrator without us growing tired of her voice. It’s brilliant.
4. Layers of complexity.
I am surviving just fine without a bookgroup…but this one could be knocked around for hours. The story is so rich and Nunez doesn’t tie everything up with a nice neat bow. Which leaves lots of questions and judgments for the reader when finished. That’s great, but I am craving to know if I understood everything fully. What was Ann’s real intention in her crime? Was she noble or a spoiled brat? How does the Great Gatsby references pull it altogether? Do you really know Georgette by the end?
People, I am virtually shoving this into your hand.