Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Activist, the Hippie and the Reader

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez


I enjoyed A Feather on the Breath of God quite a bit so after searching Amazon, this novel seemed to be the next most popular of Sigrid Nunez's works.  This one had a different set-up and was much more plot driven, though not completely linear.  Overall, I liked them both but A Feather on the Breath of God reached me more on an emotional level.


As noted above they were quite different, even though both novels must have taken place at a similar time - The Last of Her Kind begins as the story of two college roommates in the late '60s.  The parents in A Feather had met during the occupation of Germany, so their children would have been growing up in the '60s as well.  While A Feather almost ignores the time period in favor of personal relationships and character analysis, The Last of Her Kind shows how radicalism, class consciousness and idealism shaped Georgette and Ann's experiences.  The narrator, Georgette, and Ann end up taking completely different paths in life, but stay in touch until a falling out.  Due to a high profile trial, Georgette of course knows what happens to Ann, and occasionally reflects on their friendship, and Ann's influence on her.  While Georgette at first couldn't believe some of Ann's political views, and even writes that some things that people could say in the '60s or '70s sounded completely ridiculous only a few years later, she never doubted Ann's sincerity.  In fact, long after all the other hippies and idealist had gone corporate, Ann held on as "the last of her kind . . . her sensitivity and compassion aren't all just a pose" (226). 


Even though Georgette is married twice, the novel is much more concerned with friendships.  She mentions her marriages briefly, but except for one lover who is discussed close to the end of the novel, all her most important and defining relationships were with other women.  She discusses the betrayal and hurt she felt after her adored boss Nicole refuses to speak to her when her husband makes a pass at Georgette - in fact, Georgette forgave the husband his transgression long before forgiving Nicole.  Much of the novel also focuses on her sister Solange, and her struggle with her mental health.  While Ann portrayed the radical, political side of the '60s and '70s, Solange is the wild flower child who travels across the country, tries to go to Woodstock, and practices the idea of free love.  Georgette experiments with her fair share of drugs in college, but she is the more timid, shy one.  When she begins working at a Vogue type women's magazine, she loves it.  When comparing herself and her life to Solange's adventures she says,


I have gone through bad spells, times when, thinking about others' lives, the challenges faced and the risks taken, I have felt shame and loathing for myself.  I have accused myself of cowardice, lack of imagination, of ambition, of will.  (And if truth be told, it has not always been I myself making such accusations.  I have been blamed by others for my timidity; I have heard my passionate love of reading denounced as an addiction, a vice, a cowardly avoidance of the challenges, dangers, and even duties of real life.)  (164)


I just really liked that quote because honestly, I can completely relate.  It sometimes seems like everyone else is doing more with their lives than I am.  Or people will talk about the crazy things they did in high school/college, and my response tends to be, "I read a lot."  I don't regret that at all, but sometimes I do feel like I missed out on something.  It's crazy listening to how much traveling some other people have done, studying abroad and so forth, and I never did that kind of stuff.  I was always much more solitary so I didn't go on any crazy road trips.  Some things I plan on doing once I leave here, and other things I just missed out on.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing - but every once and a while, it seems like reading disconnected me from people.  Which is why I can't wait to get back to grad school where I can discuss books with other people who've read them (although I've been looking around online more lately - which that's another comment I've received lately: people that blog are losers, and the people that comment are even worse - gee, thanks).


In addition to exploring the '60s and '70s, the novel shows how these values later shaped the lives of those that came of age during that time.  After reading those two Ken Follett novels back to back, I enjoyed that Sigrid Nunez, while perhaps having a similar voice, wrote two novels that were very distinct from each other.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"people that blog are losers and people that comment are even worse" Somebody has some insecurities of their own they need to deal with instead of taking cheapshots at you. You sound very level headed and confident. Don't start being swayed by others' opinions now, especially shallow, insecure jerks.