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Anthropology of an American Girl ()

A Beguiling Book Debuts For The Second Time

May 26, 2010

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Bloated. Self-indulgent. Cliched. These are the common traps of self-published books, those that never make it into the hands of a gimlet-eyed editor, someone willing to sacrifice pretty prose for the sake of the overall work. In 2003, Hilary Thayer Hamann published her novel Anthropology of an American Girl through her own press. It became something of a sleeper success, and seven years later, it is now being reprinted by the Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau. Clocking in at 624 pages and covering a few years in the life of teenager Eveline Auerbach in closeup detail, it suffers from all of the problems that can befall the self-published.

And yet there is something so beguiling, so charming about the book. At first you might reject it like a sugary pop song, but you will find yourself singing along a few days later. Anthropology is so very, very long, and yet it continues to beckon after you think you've finished with it. It becomes ensnared in that Twilight-esque trap of having every male character inexplicably and compulsively in love with its heroine, and yet her reveries on teenage love and lust are so authentic, you don't lose your patience.

It's Eveline's voice — equal parts pretentious and poetic, bratty and poignant, wise and naive — that saves the book. It captures exactly the thought processes of an introspective teenage girl. Her worldview is sharp and dead-on. On seeing her absent father at graduation: "It depressed me somewhat to be faced with my DNA like that." On femininity: "Girls are truly game as soldiers, with the brave things they do to their bodies and the harsh conditions they are able to tolerate." On being a teenage girl: "When you're fourteen, pretty much everything puts you in a difficult predicament."

Evie doesn't do much — she joins drama club, she falls in love, she outgrows high school friends — but her dry wit and keen sense of observation make her a fine companion. Likewise, Anthropology isn't a masterpiece, but it is addictive reading. Hamann inhabits the skin of a teenage girl so accurately, so effortlessly, it's a bit of a relief she has found her way into the book world. (Six-hundred-page epics about the inner lives of teenage girls are not generally considered marketable, unless there's a vampire involved.) If Hamann can accomplish this on her own, it'll be amazing to see what she can do with a little help.

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