Elizabeth Benedict

A Friendship Born in the Turbulent Age of Aquarius

A review of The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.)
The New York Times, January 17, 2006

Into our landscape of multicultural chick lit, blogger novelists, tipping points, blinks, bling, fashionistas, and reality television without end comes a remarkable novel for those whose trendiness is in decline. This story of a complicated friendship is likely to strike deep chords with readers, especially women who were at an impressionable age during the 1960's and 70's and among those who share the narrator's taste in jokes. This is her favorite: ''Two women who are imprisoned together in the same cell for 25 years are released on the same day. Before they go their separate ways, they hang around outside the prison gate and talk for an hour.''

The Last of Her Kind is full of incident and high drama -- much of it propelled by the political landscape and idealism of the 1960's -- but it is, above all, about the way women communicate and interpret their experience, bearing down on every nuance, irony, anguished interchange and heartbreaking loss. The author's name, Sigrid Nunez, is not widely known beyond the literary establishment that has bestowed several important prizes on her , but the scope and power of her fifth novel should bring her much wider acclaim.

At the outset, though, it may be necessary to overcome any reflexive prejudice against reading another story about that decade. It's hard to imagine that there might be a fresh, original lens through which to see that time of excesses and easy caricature, but this is precisely what Ms. Nunez offers. The story is told retrospectively. The middle-aged narrator, Georgette George, is looking back through a long lens to her first days at Barnard College in 1968, focusing her acute powers of perception on what will become a lifelong friendship -- and obsession -- with a roommate, Ann Drayton. Georgette, poor and from upstate New York, is intimidated and enchanted by the rich, brilliant radical who loves justice and humanity but despises her parents because of their refusal to renounce their wealth and privilege. ''It all sounds much crazier now than it did at the time,'' Georgette admits, ''but even then I wasn't sure how Ann could possibly believe all this -- though I never doubted she was in earnest. She was never not in earnest.''

She is in earnest when, at lunch with her parents and Georgette at Café des Artistes, circa 1969, she consumes only bread and water -- but permits her friend to order a proper meal. The women connect, confide, drop out of school together, and eventually part ways when Ann turns her idealist temper on her flawed friend, as she does on her flawed parents.

It's the constancy of Ann's political convictions that will eventually lead her to trouble of the gravest sort. When that trouble comes, halfway into the book, it may be as shocking to the reader as it is to Georgette. But when it comes, the scope of The Last of Her Kind is enlarged exponentially. The novel grows into an unflinching examination of justice, race and political idealism that brings to mind Philip Roth's American Pastoral' and the tenacious intelligence of Nadine Gordimer. But at its heart is something much softer: a yearning, unequal friendship between college pals, a relationship with echoes of Nick Carraway's longing for Gatsby, an allusive thread that Ms. Nunez weaves deftly throughout the book.

It's this tenderness set against the harsh politics of the day and the brutal circumstances that later befall Ann that give the novel much of its power. The clarity and immediacy of Ms. Nunez's voice give it the rest. As their friendship falters, Georgette reflects: ''That I had disappointed her, that I did not meet her standards, that I had ceased to be of serious or special interest to her -- all this was as painful as it was undeniable. It weighed on my mind and on my spirit, but there was no one with whom I would have talked about it. The only person I had ever been able to talk with about something so painful, so close to my heart, was -- Ann.'' There is only one extended section involving Georgette's troubled sister and her obsession with Mick Jagger where the voice loses its authority and becomes more a cliché of the period than a clear-eyed picture of it.

For all of the accolades The Last of Her Kind deserves, its pleasures are difficult to summarize because many are tied to the progression of a particular thought, to the character's understanding of a series of incidents and ideas over time. When Georgette is raped as a student in Riverside Park, she examines every dimension of the event as she experienced it then, as she integrates it now -- and in an ironic twist, as a group of young women of today arrogantly reject her description of her own feelings: ''They told me I was in denial. They told me I was intellectualizing.''

One of the best moments in the book is when the meaning of the title is revealed. Like so much else here, it startles and lingers long in the heart and the mind.

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Elizabeth Benedict
photo: Emma Dodge Hanson

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