Eveline Aster Auerbach, the title character of Anthropology of an American Girl, defines herself that way early in the novel: "I was an American girl; I possessed what our culture values most — independence and blind courage."
Whether she's right about what our culture values is a whole other argument, but that self-evaluation is premature. Hilary Thayer Hamann's debut novel is really the story of a girl slowly realizing how very little independence she owns, and how easily blind surrender can be mistaken for courage.
Evie, as she's called, is 17 as the novel opens in 1979, a high school senior in East Hampton, on Long Island. Where Evie lives is not the crazy rich Hamptons (though it's not far away); the freewheeling household of her divorced mother, a college professor, is comfortable but hardly wealthy.
Evie is bright, pretty, artistic, beloved but not smothered by both her parents, and surrounded by a tight group of friends, but none of that, of course, prevents her from claiming her portion of teenage angst. Her longtime boyfriend, Jack Fleming, shares those qualities, but he's also needy, damaged, depressed — he adores Evie, but she seems more like his guardian than his girlfriend.
Jack is also, despite his brilliance and cynicism, very much a boy, and very little use to Evie under pressure. When, not long after a crisis, she meets a tall, dark, handsome, mysterious (well, okay, he's helping out with a school play), 20-something stranger named Harrison Rourke, she leaves Jack, regretfully and with much philosophizing, but decisively.
Evie, who narrates the book, philosophizes a lot. Anthropology of an American Girl reads much of the time, especially in its first half, like the journal of a creatively talented but undisciplined teenage girl. That's exactly what Evie is, of course, and her voice is a convincing one. But a little teenage philosophizing goes a long way, and there were times in this 606-page novel — even though the characters and story drew me along — that I wished it were tighter. (It's interesting that Hamann, a filmmaker, has written such an interior, noncinematic novel; there's way more thinking than action.)
But Evie can be a sharp observer, as when she says of a teacher, "He smiled tightly, and his chin gathered into his neck in that skeptical way that older men have, which they use on you when no one else is looking, and which is frankly just a patronizing manner of flirting." Or this on her mother: "Unfortunately, my mother thought she understood. Things were usually better between us when she didn't have the faintest idea what I was talking about."
Once Evie and Rourke meet, Hamann does a splendid job of capturing the fevered sensation of first love, or at least first sexual obsession. But even if you're willing to take that ride with Evie, it's hard not to notice how little she bases it on.
She falls for Rourke literally at first sight, reads whole volumes of meaning into any accidental meeting, equates his square-jawed, wide-chested masculine beauty with moral character before she knows the first thing about him.
Rourke is laconic to a fault, and most of their conversations are short enough to tweet. But Evie can parse and deconstruct and encrust with meaning even the shortest. This part of the novel almost becomes a reverse Lolita, with young Lo the romantic, self-justifying worshipper and older Humbert the nearly inarticulate object of desire. Humbert was brought up short when his fantasies collided with the all-too-real Lolita, but Evie sets a record for willful delusion — she lives with Rourke for a whole summer without ever asking him about his background or what he does for a living. (He's an Olympic-caliber boxer, just in case his testosterone ranking wasn't high enough already.)
When Rourke leaves her at the end of that summer, she's devastated. She goes off to college in Manhattan numb as ice, but she's not alone for long. Lying in wait is Mark Ross, who is a college friend (maybe) of Rourke's as well as the older brother of Evie's friend Alicia. Born rich, Mark has made himself richer as one of those Wall Street 1980s Masters of the Universe. He collects insanely expensive cars, dangerously wealthy friends — and Evie.
She's already shown a tendency, with both Jack and Rourke, to define herself in terms of the man she's with, to change her shape to suit his. With Mark her surrender to the male gaze is total; she drifts away from college in an '80s haze of cocaine and Stolichnaya as Mark buys her a Beemer, sluices cash into her bank account and tells her what to wear and how to act as if she were a child.
Emotionally paralyzed by the loss of Rourke and by Mark's increasingly sinister dominance, she floats for several years, her only reliable ally Rourke's friend Rob Cirillo, a sort of New Jersey Italian Nick Carraway riding the wake of Rourke's legend and keeping an eye on the girl Rourke left behind.
It takes disaster to shake Evie out of her haze, but among the things she finds when she goes back home to East Hampton is a much clearer vision of the world. When she claims her own shape and starts cutting through some of those romantic notions, that world turns out to be a remarkably interesting place.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.