“The Man of My Dreams”

In the follow-up to her sleeper hit "Prep," Curtis Sittenfeld captures the pain of growing from girl to woman.

Topics: Fiction, Books,

"The Man of My Dreams"

In the second week of Hannah and Oliver’s relationship — which is already messy, because dating a co-worker is never a good idea — he announces that earlier that morning, another woman in their office gave him a blow job in the handicapped bathroom. Oliver is Boyfriend No. 2 for Hannah in Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, “The Man of My Dreams,” but if you’re thinking to yourself that Oliver may not be the man of her dreams — or anyone’s, really — you are right. Don’t tell that to Hannah, though. She thinks he might be “the best I can do.”

“The Man of My Dreams” is the story of Hannah’s search for love in all the wrong places, bathrooms included. It opens in the summer of 1991, when Hannah is 14 and living in exile with an aunt and uncle after her emotionally abusive father kicked her, her sister and her mother out of the house. Jumping in time, we next find her at Tufts University, and finally, as a woman in her 20s, working at a nonprofit. She takes up with Oliver after breaking things off with her doting college boyfriend Mike, and before spending a couple of years lusting after her best friend Henry. Grown up and looking back, she understands each as a certain type — “the man who is with you completely, the man who is with you but not with you, the man who will get as close to you as he can without being yours.” There may be other possibilities, she hopes, but she “can’t imagine what they are.”

Obsessed with boys as a teenager, Hannah doesn’t date, or kiss one, until college. When she sleeps with Mike for the first time, she is neither impressed nor devastated. She is confused — ” Really? Just this? ” she thinks — but also relieved. At last, she is like other people. She feels a little closer to normal.

As a college student, Hannah finds normalcy is more romantic than love — she is not like the others she sees on campus, who fall easily into each other’s arms and beds. She passes Friday nights alone in her dorm room and fantasizes about being married, when she can stop worrying about parties and just grab takeout and a video. (Lucky for her, she is described by Henry as “exactly the kind of girl a guy marries” — just before he turns and throws away his burrito wrapper.) She knows she is chronically “judgmental and disappointed,” but she doesn’t know if she can change. And besides, “the unflattering things she notices about other people, the comments she makes that get her in trouble, aren’t these truer than small talk and thank-you notes?”



In this Hannah is very much — perhaps too much — like Lee, the protagonist of “Prep,” Sittenfeld’s bestselling first novel. Both young women experience life behind a screen, as a series of things that happen to them; they are dedicated anthropologists who study their peers, looking to the behavior of others for the secret of their confidence. Like Lee, Hannah is not particularly gorgeous; neither is she devastatingly witty, or brilliant. She lacks hobbies and passions, devoting most of her free time to finding fault with others and examining herself with the same microscope. This close attention to social behavior — so typical of girls and young women — is familiar. It is easy to feel close to Hannah, to feel that she is someone you have known, or have been.

When she’s alone one Friday night, “She wishes she owned nail polish so she could paint her nails right now, or that she wore make-up and could stand before the mirror, with her lips puckered, smearing them some oily, sparkly shade of pink. At the very least, she wishes she had a women’s magazine so she could read about other people doing those things.”

More than anything, Hannah is blank, propelled not by goals or aspirations, by likes or dislikes, but by outside events. She reacts to, and is formed by, whatever happens to come her way. Because of that, “The Man of My Dreams” makes for strange reading — a character study that is driven by plot. It is an ordinary, routine journey of divorce, remarriage, boyfriends had and lost, but Sittenfeld makes it captivating, like another family’s home movies. She writes in the third person, inside Hannah’s head, which turns reading into something closer to eavesdropping. Like here, when Hannah takes a camping trip with her sister Allison, Allison’s fiancé, and the fiancé’s brother Elliot, Hannah is forced to share a tent with Elliot. She’s drawn to him, but notices he has a crush on her sister.

“It is in this moment, in his worship of Allison, that Hannah feels a weird kinship with Elliot. Watching them, she can feel in her own hand the desire to touch this girl’s wavy hair, this girl whose kindness and beauty could make your life right if you could get her to be yours. Hannah wonders if Elliot imagined she would be another version of Allison.”

In this moment, as in so many others, it is easy to slip inside Hannah, to get into her head. And because Sittenfeld is so good at bringing Hannah to life, she is also very good at getting you to turn the pages.

Unlike “Prep’s” Lee, Hannah is not just a morose adolescent — she is a depressed adult. She is not deeply ashamed of her father, but has been damaged, traumatized by his outbursts. The screen she hides behind doesn’t just separate her from others, it makes her into a bit of a zombie, removed from her own feelings. After Oliver tells her about the bathroom blow job, “it occurred to her that she should feel more devastated than she did.” Any emotional outbursts embarrass her; she is even bemused by Mike’s passionate defense of migrant workers, which she finds “silly.” During her childhood, “any given day was about not stirring the pot, so people who stir the pot voluntarily” strike her as “playing a game, even if they’re not aware of it.”

This attempt to preserve balance and tranquility means that Hannah does what she thinks she should do, not what she wants to do — a problem compounded by the typical confusion around determining what it is one really wants. (She and Mike take a walk along the Charles River, which she “imagines will feel fake-romantic, like they’re trying too hard,” but is surprised that “it just feels nice.”) For her, life is a problem to be solved, a code to be cracked: While at Tufts, she begins to see a therapist, Dr. Lewin. When she returns each week from her session, she scribbles down notes, trying to force an epiphany, imagining that “when enough pieces of paper have accumulated” she will “understand the secret of happiness.” The drama of the novel is Hannah’s passage from adolescence to maturity; she only grows up, becomes unstuck, when she learns how to go after the things she wants instead of trying to follow an imaginary script.

Still, with all that recommends “The Man of My Dreams,” why did Sittenfeld choose such an awful title? In this month’s Glamour, she writes that it is meant to be “more than a little ironic,” but irony or no, it’s cringe-worthy. And given the care she has taken to develop Hannah slowly, to let the impact of each new year and major change sink in, the ending is baffling — a letter to Dr. Lewin, in which Hannah recaps the previous two years. It seems like she runs out of steam at the end, even taking the downright corny shortcut of resolving a major argument with the appearance of a rainbow.

But Sittenfeld’s ear for dialogue is always sharp, and her observations can be shiver-inducing. She is especially good at capturing the spaces that divide people from each other, the invisible gulf between how we see ourselves and how others see us — and the sadness when we get a glimpse of that divide, when what one thinks is keen observation is revealed to be simple misperception. One night Hannah and Frank, her mother’s second husband, see an elderly family friend home. After a trying visit in which stooped, slow Mrs. Dawes breaks a glass, insists on cleaning it up herself and refuses to be helped on the stairs, they sit in the car together.

“Frank shakes his head. ‘I never want to grow old, Hannah,’ he says. She looks at him in astonishment. She thinks, But you already are.”

At the end of “Prep,” it was easy to think, Thank God that’s over and I never have to go back to the horrible person I was in high school and all those other horrible people I knew. Closing “The Man of My Dreams,” someone in her 20s might wonder, Is this ever going to end? Sittenfeld captures the pain of growing up in such a raw, palpable way, that it is a relief to finally close the book and put it aside. Of course, if characters have lives when books end, Hannah will still have to move forward, into an unknown future. It’s a testament to Sittenfeld’s writing that there’s no way to guess what will happen when she gets there.

Christine Smallwood is on the editorial staff of the Nation and co-editor of the Crier magazine.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>