If I’d have read The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing aged 15, I’d have said it shaped me. But, I didn’t. I read it aged 28, so instead, it prodded at, and stirred me. The praise then - and even now if you talk to the right people - is deafening. I’ve heard at least three writers say it’s the book they wish they’d have written, and that they’ve spent extended periods of their career trying to emulate Melissa Bank’s deceptively simple prose. Alas, it’s a near impossible nut to crack. It took the author herself 12 years to finish this series of seven short, interlinking stories that are so perfectly crafted, that you can’t help but want to be the protagonist Jane Rosenal’s best friend. We meet her aged 14, when penny loafers and salty boardwalks on the Jersey Shore sing with nostalgia, and follow her to New York, on her search to find a suitable man who adores her.
As with many love-laden books by women, it was packaged in 1999, as chick-lit. It is in fact, anything but. Cerebral and acerbic, in parts it almost reads as social commentary.
Jane’s thoughts are roaming and rigorous. Every conversation and observation registers like the best piece of your grandma’s most sage advice. Her epiphanies are perceptive and punctual: "My breasts seem to say something about me that I didn’t want said," she says of her burgeoning physique. And her wit, deliciously sardonic: "I’d love to stay and talk, but I have to go shoot some heroin now," she quips to her parents aged 14.
Continually exposed to women more sophisticated than her, Jane laments her lack of romantic understanding, always returning to the idea that it’s somehow "proof of how unprepared [she] is to love anyone". Issued with barrages of - mostly unsolicited - advice ("try to appear captivated when speaking to men," says her aunt Rita), her blueprint of how to be the kind of woman for whom a man will fall, is constantly mutating. In contention for her heart is Archie Knox, an illustrious New York book editor 28 years her senior, who having previously played fast and loose with both women and booze, proves irresistible to Jane, and to predictably bad ends. The experience however, is formative.
When she meets Mr Right, a suitor who’s neither indifferent or domineering, you can’t help but be maddened by her own insouciance. Her intuition is overridden by meta Bonnie and Faith, from the self-help manual she’s reading, How to Meet and Marry Mr Right. Until finally - thankfully - she sees the book for what it is: A manual of manipulation.
From the death of her father and Aunt Rita, and the loss of her job as an editor, to her failed relationship with Archie, Jane deflects despair with humour, or matter-of-fact bluntness. "My father died later that night," she says. And though the events seem tidy and assuming at the time of their happening, they lead her to her biggest realisation, that she doesn't need to be the person everyone else wants her to be. Why? "Nobody was watching, except me," she says.
In the end, through her own foibles and relationships, Jane unwittingly sets out the manifesto she sought to find and follow all along. And you can’t help but feel like it’ll serve her brilliantly. And better still, you too.
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