This wonderful book, marketed as fiction but often feeling like memoir, tells the story of a young woman who moves to New York City in the late 1970s looking for adventure and to write her first novel.
Following the main character S.H. in her progress is immersive, we are there when she moves into her small apartment and hears her neighbour chanting manically through the wall. We eat her meals with her and meet her new friends.
This narrated past from the speaker’s position as an older woman in almost present-day America is also mixed with two other texts, her diary from the time in present tense, and the novel she is writing – a mystery about two teenage detectives.
The three sections work well together and are all compelling in their own ways. Seeing the character develop the novel is especially exciting for people interested in the writing process or those who write themselves and including both the diary from the time and the reflections of the older woman creates some insightful moments of the past and the present interacting. This is one of the things the book does very well, meditating on memories and how we relate to them differently as we get older, as well as the role writing plays in this. Hustvedt also thinks about how significant moments are recorded in our minds as they happen and how some are forgotten. About her friend Whitney the older S.H. says:
“I loved her then. I love her now, but while I was in the throes of living it was impossible for me to know whether a moment would be significant or whether it would vanish into oblivion along with so much else.” p.300
Whitney, who we meet as a vibrant young woman when S.H does is one of the characters who transcends the different time periods in the book as we hear about her life as she grows older with S.H.
The book also has a strong feminist message, Hustvedt and her character rail against the so called Great Men, academics and artists who command people’s respect while patronising women and stealing their work.
There is also a very satisfying moment at a dinner party where S.H. encounters a condescending older man.
The man says he does not want to hear any more “philosophies from female nether-regions”, and then asks the protagonist, “I don’t suppose you have anything to add to this venerable debate, my dear?”
She begins her reply with, “You have made a statement, but have delivered it as if it were a question. I find the technique dubious, if not reprehensible…” (p.234-5) and goes on to take him down philosophically in a way that one would usually articulate as a type of staircase wit. It was brilliant to read anyway and cemented the tenderness I felt for the character.
Hustvedt’s New York City is exciting and her characters warm and comforting, I loved being in their world and was sad to leave it at the end. As an older woman her observations about the present day are poignant and I also enjoyed the little illustrations throughout.