Friday, November 17, 2006

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez

This reads like a memoir, though it is fiction. Is it Nunez’s fictionalized story? I don’t know. It’s very real, and very engrossing. The narrator is Georgette George, a girl who escapes her poor girlhood in upstate New York with a scholarship to Barnard College in the 1960s. Raised by a single mother on welfare, with 5 siblings, Georgette is the only one in her family to escape the cycle of alcohol abuse, poverty, and mental illness that eventually claims her mother and most of her siblings. In many ways this book is about the transformative power of education. Removed from the toxic environment of her girlhood, Georgette sees the possibility of another kind of life.

It is also the story of Ann Drayton, Georgette’s Barnard roommate, who rejects her upper-class Connecticut upbringing (and her original first name Dooley, a relic of her slave-holding ancestors) in favor of a life spent fighting the establishment. Ashamed of her privileged legacy, she fights for social justice, becomes involved in an inter-racial relationship, and eventually commits a crime that results in a long prison sentence. Ironically, it is in prison that she is finally able to make her largest contribution to the human good.

The contrast between these characters makes for interesting social commentary. Ann is not particularly interested in Georgette's kind of poverty, and wishes instead that she had a poor black roommate. Georgette is incredulous that anyone could throw away the kind of advantages that Ann enjoys. Nunez is never heavy-handed in her presentation and allows the reader to draw her own conclusions.

I was reminded a little bit of other “looking back on the sixties” books, such as While I Was Gone by Sue Miller, and Vida by Marge Piercy, though I’m not implying that this book is at all derivative. It’s just another spin on a topic that I find interesting. I see that Nunez has written a few other books also. I plan to put them on my TBR list.

Here is a link to a review from the Village Voice.
(Book 49, 2006)


Anonymous said...

I haven't read this book but I have read the other two you mention -- Sue Miller and Marge Piercy. I liked both of those. I think Marge Piercy is rather under-rated -- I haven't read her historical work but I always enjoy her novels. She's changed a lot as a novelist over many years -- I first read her as a teenager and have enjoyed her development as a novelist in the (rather many!) intervening years.

Becky Holmes said...

I agree about Marge Piercy, though I think her status has risen, especially with her most recent book. I think she somehow got caught in some ghetto of "women's popular fiction" and took a long time to extract herself. I haven't read her most recent book either, but am looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

I thought this novel was amazingly good, just BEAUTIFULLY well-written. Better than Marge Piercy, maybe, at least in terms of style... (I mean, I like Piercy too, but she's not really a stylist as much as an ideas person.)

Becky Holmes said...

Jenny, I agree that the writing in this book was wonderful. It's difficult to write something that sounds like a memoir, but is really a novel, and have it work on both levels, and Nunez did so, perfectly.

Unknown said...

I just finished reading this book and really enjoyed it as well. I loved Nunez's writing and I agree about a memoir as a novel working well in this instance.

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