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The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
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Mar 06, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, united-states, literary-fiction, 4-stars
Read from February 08 to 10, 2012

I tend to avoid books set in the U.S. post-WWII. The ones that aspire to genuine literary merit tend toward pretention, high-handedness, and tedium. But The Last of Her Kind is different: it’s a well-written, thoughtful, thematically rich and, above all, an interesting book.

In 1968, Georgette George and Ann Drayton are assigned to room together at Barnard College. Georgette grew up in poverty in upstate New York; Ann comes from a rich family in Connecticut, but in an effort to disavow her privileged roots, requested a roommate as different from herself as possible. At first Georgette finds Ann unbearable, but soon they become friends, and the book follows their lives and their complicated relationship over more than 30 years.

I didn’t live through the 60s or 70s. I’d learned about that period, but I’d never seen it like this. Georgette, Ann and Georgette’s sister Solange are all (in different ways) a part of the radical hippie culture at the time, and this book does an excellent job of bringing that period to life in all its bizarre, fascinating weirdness. So the first half in particular works well as historical fiction. And Nunez's decision to write the book as if it were a memoir allows Georgette, as the narrator, to contrast America as it was then with America in the early 21st century, in non-obvious ways.

The book also shines in its examination of its characters and themes. Ann is one of those rare characters that the author really lets us come to our own conclusions about. Did she make a meaningful difference in the world? Or did she hurt the people around her more than her good works could make up for? Is she admirable in her sincerity and her willingness to practice what she preaches, or just obnoxious in her fanaticism? Can someone from a life of privilege really advocate for the underprivileged without being a hypocrite? How do you make that work? For instance: when Ann gets into legal trouble, she insists on being represented by a public defender, because she wants to get the same justice as everyone else. But then, her insistence on equality means she’s taking the public defender’s time away from actual poor people. So what should she have done? The book doesn’t try to answer these questions. But they’re absolutely questions worth asking.

The writing style is excellent, and full of insights into humanity without becoming sentimental or overwrought. The characters are complicated and interesting and feel genuine, although the narrator, Georgette, is somewhat less interesting than the others. Part of the reason I give 4 stars is that less than a month after finishing this book, I was having a hard time remembering her name. She's written as the more conventional one as a foil to Ann, but isn't especially memorable in her own right. The other part is that for the first 50 pages or so, before the book hits its stride, Georgette seems to tell us too much about what Ann is like rather than showing us through scenes, and that the random rape scene, much as it does fit into the novel’s themes, still felt gratuitous.

Overall, an excellent book, even if Literature-with-a-capital-L is something you generally avoid. I don’t reread often, but this is a book that deserves rereading--or just stopping to think as you read, rather than rushing through it in a day as I did. But I read it so quickly because it’s a compelling, well-written book, and that’s a recommendation in itself.
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