When you curl up with a book called The Man of My Dreams, knowing it was written by the woman whose first novel, Prep (published only last year), has become an instant classic—a Catcher in the Rye for modern-day Phoebes—you assume, pardonably, that you’re in for a few hours of highly shareable romantic reverie, steeped in the waffle-cone-and-beer-scented nostalgia of collegiate love. It’s not an original subject, God knows; but if you’re too jaded to want to read a novel about great passion, you can always stick to books that suit your bah-humbug sensibility, something about poverty, perhaps, or terrorism, or Ebola.
But, as it turns out, this book is one for the sourpusses. Sittenfeld leaches the color from her audience’s rosy expectations from the get-go. Her female lead, Hannah Gavener, is the kind of woman nobody would want in a summer share; pushing 30, she’s sulky, spiteful, uncommunicative, non-self-aware, and completely incapable of playing well with others. If she were on your charades team, you’d lose. And who’s the lucky man on the receiving end of Hannah’s crabbed yearnings? Could it be Mike—the loving, decent guy she met at Tufts, who sickens her because he mispronounces “genuine”? Or the hard-of-hearing nebbish Ted? Or her lesbian cousin Fig’s preppy castoff, Henry? Or Oliver, the male slut from New Zealand? It takes a while before we begin to twig that Hannah doesn’t really have a dream man, just a diary of phantom lovers and crushes. But how can you care about the dream when you don’t care for the dreamer?
In all probability, Sittenfeld does care for her heroine. Early on, she whips up sympathy for Hannah with a short flashback to her tear-stained teens, when she holed up with her aunt Elizabeth and uncle Darrach (. . . Darrach? Is that even a name?), after her father turfed his wife and daughters out of the house. The next 200 pages show the maladjusted moper sleep-walking through college and various entry-level jobs, as she endures a string of brief encounters that could have been great love affairs, had she not been a total pill. A coming-of-age story has a narrative arc; so does a love story. But Hannah has no arc, she has a splat. Having hit a developmental wall at 14, she never scraped herself off the bricks. She parrots psychobabble to make it seem as if she has absorbed a life lesson or two, for instance: “Being raised in an unstable household makes you understand that the world doesn’t exist to accommodate you.” Yet Hannah doesn’t make the effort to meet the world halfway. Pouting and seething in a self-imposed time-out, she seems determined to remain in the nursery in perpetuity.
As a friendless freshman at Tufts, she swigs cough syrup on Fridays so she can knock herself out before nightfall, trading the buzz of kegger parties for the sluggish solace of dextromethorphan. Later, when her good-natured sister, Allison, gets engaged, Hannah remarks, “I guess I just don’t see him as very special. . . . Is that rude?” Allison, exasperated, eventually strikes back, saying, “You are a miserable person . . . and you make the people around you miserable, too.” And when Fig flirts with her latest catch, at a family gathering, Hannah outs her in a fit of jealousy. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” Fig tells her with surprising magnanimity, “but it’s time for you to lose your low-self-esteem shtick. It’s gotten kind of stale, you know what I mean?”
Yup. The protagonist of Sittenfeld’s hugely enjoyable Prep was an awkward middle-class girl named Lee, who wins a scholarship to a tony East Coast boarding school. Like Hannah, Lee is self-loathing and hypercritical of others, but unlike Hannah, she has an excuse: She is a teenager for most of 400 pages, and she is, at least, trying to become less of a freak. Watching the adolescent Lee stumble to get her social bearings stirs fellow feeling. But clocking Hannah’s faux pas and mortifications is like watching episodes ofQueer Eye for the Straight Girl—distressing, not entertaining. Unfair as this may be, the spectacle of a grown woman who doesn’t know how to cope with reality is neither touching—as in the case of a teenager like Lee—or funny, as in the case of male misfits. It’s just off-putting.
It would be tempting to think that Hannah’s failure to charm is the fault not of the author but of overeager editor and publisher types who pushed their star pupil to shine again before she had time to refine her work. But Sittenfeld has explained in interviews that she wrote The Man of My Dreams while she was writing Prep. Her writerly control in Prep showed what she can do when she fine-tunes her reflections. In that book, she painted her protagonist with such detail that the subtle hues of her emotional palette came through. With this level of attention, even a brown bird like Lee flickered with natural iridescence. But Hannah begins and ends as a brown bird—and one who has a croak, not a song. A writer may love all her creatures equally, both the polished and the rough, but a less-partial judge can see that Hannah could have used more prep.