Top positive review
The confusing waters of relationships, life, and youth - real and honest
on 21 October 2017
I have just finished reading it for the second time; the first time I was 20, in a serious, loving, but difficult relationship, with not the greatest self esteem, and I felt sympathetic, even empathetic, towards protagonist Hannah. Now, years later, I read Hannah's story and feel a sense of relief that I have grown up a little bit. I still enjoy the book, maybe more now that I can understand the lessons.
Hannah appears preoccupied with romance and boyfriends from early on, and throughout the book, you get the impression that it is really all that matters in her life. This may put a lot of readers off, but the theme of the book is more than that. Hannah is, by nature or nurture, very introverted, very socially awkward, very wary of people, and very conscious - painfully conscious of herself, painfully conscious of others, and painfully conscious of how she fits in comparison to others. Many readers can actually relate, at least a little, to Hannah's experiences: her first college party, which is awful, the peer pressure, the feeling that you are out of place and unwanted, surrounded by people that seem to instinctively know what they're doing and flock together as expected, though what is expected is never verbalised. Many girls and young women compare themselves unfavourably to other girls, as Hannah does, particularly in light that guys seem to love these girls, and she wonders, why not her? Hannah is not kissed until her early twenties, as she tries to navigate the murky and confusing waters of relating to other people. She has appalling self esteem - another thing that may put readers off - but it is very relatable. She seems unlikable, at times, sometimes downright mean, but when you are trying to understand the world, understand people, and understand relationships, it is actually quite natural to be cynical, sarcastic and angry at the very people, the social rules and hierarchy, that makes you feel inferior and powerless. Hannah may be unlikable, but, she is real.
I feel like I have grown up since first reading this novel, because Hannah's relationship errors seem so obvious to me now. She makes bad choices, puts herself in bad situations, and you think, "Why, my dear, why?" But the reason is that a lot of people do, in their late teens, their twenties, when life is very busy, when relationships are very confusing, and when technically, your brain is still developing. I can't relate to most of her dating errors, but I can relate to her: her feeling of being outside looking in, wondering if her dreams, the same dream shared by everyone else, will come true someday, eventually, and with who. She learns along the way, her choices improve, and we feel that Hannah grows. On the surface, this is a coming-of-age novel about dating, sex, and romantic relationships. Deeper, it is about societal norms, the way people respond and relate to eachother, not only sexually and romantically, but platonic; it's about discovering who you are, and where you belong. How much do we need another person? Can you be happy alone? Single? What is it that you want in life? Who is it? Discovering the answers to these questions can, temporarily at least, lead you into wrong choices. That's life. Hannah is learning and actually, we're learning, too.
I love Prep more, but Man of My Dreams gets a place on my bookshelf at last because Curtis Sittenfeld is gripping and captures the reality of youth so well. There are funny moments, but overall the book is fairly dark. Being young is scary. And even if you don't want to sit down and have a latte with the character, or declare her a literary role model, you get it. It's not about role models. It's about life. And sometimes, particularly when you're feeling down and confused about your own life, all you actually want is to lie in bed and read, not about a warrior woman, but about a young woman who gets it. Hannah's story has helped me see that my relationship choices have been smarter and more mature, but also that I still have a fair way to go on myself. That is why I like Curtis Sittenfeld's books: because I get it. When you come away knowing more about yourself that you didn't realise before, the book has worked as intended.