Hannah Gavener is fourteen in the summer of 1991. In the magazines she reads, celebrities plan elaborate weddings; in Hannah’s own life, her parents’ marriage is crumbling. And somewhere in between these two extremes–just maybe–lie the answers to love’s most bewildering questions. But over the next decade and a half, as she moves from Philadelphia to Boston to Albuquerque, Hannah finds that the questions become more rather than less complicated: At what point can you no longer blame your adult failures on your messed-up childhood? Is settling for someone who’s not your soul mate an act of maturity or an admission of defeat? And if you move to another state for a guy who might not love you back, are you being plucky–or just pathetic?
None of the relationships in Hannah’s life are without complications. There’s her father, whose stubbornness Hannah realizes she’s unfortunately inherited; her gorgeous cousin, Fig, whose misbehavior alternately intrigues and irritates Hannah; Henry, whom Hannah first falls for in college, while he’s dating Fig; and the boyfriends who love her more or less than she deserves, who adore her or break her heart. By the time she’s in her late twenties, Hannah has finally figured out what she wants most–but she doesn’t yet know whether she’ll find the courage to go after it.
Full of honesty and humor, The Man of My Dreams is an unnervingly insightful and beautifully written examination of the outside forces and personal choices that make us who we are.
For a moment I thought that Curtis Sittenfeld was going to give me what I wanted: a happy ending. No ambiguities and no doubts. Just happiness for our anxious protagonist Hannah: a shared apartment, evenings entangled on the couch in front of the television, Sunday morning brunches followed by Sunday afternoon antique shopping, an engagement, a wedding, a child—all with the man of her dreams.
Thank god I was wrong. Because what I want is not what I need. I want a book to delight, to entertain, to promise me everything turns out okay. But I need a book to present questions and evade answers, to tell its story not in the shape of a line but a dodecahedron, to venture into the dark and never come out. In short, a book must deny me what I want.
In The Man of My Dreams Hannah is no reader’s ideal narrator. A grown-up Lee Fiora from Sittenfeld’s Prep, Hannah is shy and uneasy, world-weary yet inexperienced, not unable but unwilling to escape what ails her. Sittenfeld’s narrators are hard to get to know and harder to appreciate. Timid girls, they all trick themselves into ignoring the depth of their loneliness and the intensity of their embarrassments. Normally she writes in the third person at the most uncomfortable distance—far enough away that the narrator’s thoughts and decisions remain elusive and irrational, but close enough that the narrator’s failings and ugliness reflect right back onto you.
Yet despite how uncomfortable the narration is, Hannah is a fantastic protagonist. We’ve all already read the novels about girls like Hannah’s sister Allison, a thoroughly decent girl who marries a thoroughly decent man to form a thoroughly decent couple, and girls like her cousin Fig, the bombshell, the debauched girl who buzzes with confidence as she hooks up with one frat boy, and then another, and then another, and then another. But Hannah’s story is one less frequently told, either shoved away in a forgotten bookshelf corner or merely sidekicking in a story about the popular, wonderful girl who gets all the dates she wants. Hannah is a nasty girl, quiet on the outside but screaming on the inside. She screams for someone to care about her, to kiss her, to want her, to simply see her. But internal screams are silent; no man of her dreams will ever rescue her. What Hannah learns is to rescue herself. And fittingly, it’s not a lesson she wants to learn but a lesson she needs to learn.