Book Review: Anthropology of an American Girl

Anthropology of an American Girl: A Novel by Hilary Thayer Hamann

Anthropology of an American Girl

by Hilary Thayer Hamann

(Spiegel & Grau)

Its 640 pages read like 120. I’ve never been so captivated by a novel, so simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by a character before. Anthropology of an American Girl spans the senior year of high school and college years of Eveline Auerbach as she comes into her femininity, cultivates her sexuality, falls in love with a teacher’s assistant, and marries the consequences of her actions.

Told in parts, the way you might divide your own life, the before and after of being in love, of moving, of living in stages. A study of a girl’s heart which, at times, can be misleading just as it is achingly honest. How we betray but find truth in our betrayal until we don’t can’t. Regrets piled up precariously on slender shoulders and the knowledge that always, we are being watched, assessed.

“It was confusing, frankly, the way everyone stared at our bodies even as they tried to erase the ideas of our bodies from our minds. We are supposed to get over ourselves, but no one was supposed to get over us. The female body was our worst handicap and our best advantage—the surest means to success, the surest course to failure.”

American Girl dredges up the real substance of youth, we are and were not the happy-go-lucky misfits of Glee or the scripted reality of MTV shows, there is violence, depravity, intellectual blooming, addiction, despair. Thayer Hamann doesn’t shy away from any of it, allowing her characters to navigate her world as we do ours, stumbling, searching, grasping.

Her real power, though, is in the access to Eveline’s thoughts. While the character doesn’t seem to say much of anything she feels enormously and we are privy to a perception of the world that is both new and poignant. It doesn’t matter so much that Evie lacks agency, allowing herself to become a pathetic shell of a woman passed from man to man, bartered and sold, because as an artist she lives in her head and her thoughts are beautiful and tragic, delicate as she falls into a dangerous depression and strong when she finds the will to live outside her mind, manipulate her way out of the situation she’s trapped herself in. Because, that’s the most apt portrayal of all, isn’t it? The hardest cages to escape from are the ones we build ourselves.

Read it. Then read it again.

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