Friday, July 07, 2006

Best read of the year

Maggie says:
Last week I found myself completely, happily immersed in an amazing book, one I've mentioned here a couple of times: The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez. This book is truly remarkable, and keeps settling in more and more since I've finished it, exactly the type of read I adore.

How can a book be so huge in its scope, yet still read so small? It's amazing. The Last of Her Kind is set at Barnard in the late '60s, at the center of massive change gripping the country. The story follows two friends who meet as roommates: one, a WASP blonde plagued by class guilt who requests a roommate as different from her as possible; the other, a poor resident of upstate New York, haunted by the poverty and abuse from her childhood and unsure of her place alongside rich college girls. Ann (who drops her given name, Dooley, because it represents a slaveholding wing of her family) and Georgette become the kind of friends that only college nights fueled by procrastination and lack of sleep and intensity can inspire, and they are inexplicably tied to one another for decades to come, marked and wounded and shaped by the turbulent times, their personal politics, and their individual backgrounds. While Ann denounces her privileged upbringing and gets increasingly swept into radical politics, Georgette's concerns are more personal and immediate (her teenage sister who runs away shortly before Woodstock, for instance), and the radicalism of the times never rings true for her.

This book manages to be both a modern take on the idealist politics of the '60s (Georgette is our narrator, and her tone is full of the wonder at how much in the world has changed between then and now) and a nuanced telling of two women and their very complicated friendship. While the scope here is wide and unflinching, its brush is markedly feminine and intricate. As the brutality of racist police violence and underground radical training camps is told along with the tenderness of a never-equal friendship and a love affair that begins at a bookstore, the picture that emerges is touchingly real, alive in its small stories as much as the huge ones. Through Ann and Georgette, we see times change radically, and we live the infamous stories of late '60s/early '70s radicalism with new insight.

What's remarkable about this book is that while outsiders paint Ann with broad brushstrokes later in her life, when she becomes an infamous headline, we continue to see her with Georgette's smaller, more personal brushstrokes. Ann is not always likeable - in fact, many people outright hate her - but by viewing her as a friend, as Georgette does, we see the goodness behind the fierce tenacity, the vulnerability behind the unforgiving radical. Ann is a problematic friend, the one you'd always have to defend and explain even when you don't agree with her. But she's absolutely riveting, and someone you'd want in your life regardless of the trouble. And after all, she's right a lot of the time. Her critique at Barnard that the student movement would fold because it was hopelessly white and elitist was correct. Her common statement that "I wish I was black," however, would seem as inappropriate to African-Americans today as it did then.

The Last of her Kind takes on class consciousness, the power of the personal, gender politics, race and radicalism, the place of the white left, the changing nature of sex and drugs and protests and personal responsibility... But its heart lies with the more eternal issues: friendships that strain and change over time, overcoming the divide between our actual backgrounds and what we might wish them to be, how women talk to each other and include each other in our lives, how we overcome tragedy and keep moving forward, how we love the people we probably shouldn't.

Beautiful stuff. I can't wait to read this book again.


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