The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

by Melissa Bank

Published by Viking

274 pages, 1999

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You Go, Girl!

Reviewed by Sharon Pian Chan


Jane Rosenal is not as neurotic as Ally McBeal. She's not as weight-obsessed as Bridget Jones. But she has brains and she has wit, which make her even more endearing as she searches for the right man in her life.

In The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, first-novelist Melissa Bank has created a working-girl heroine who slowly stumbles, sometimes crawls her way down the road to love. Between her awkwardness and her wry observations of people around her, Jane is a total crack-up, somebody you could imagine calling and spending two hours with, as you deconstruct your last date over a shared carton of Häagen-Dazs. Viking, which also published Helen Fielding's 1998 cult-building novel, The Bridget Jones Diary, appears to have hit upon a best-selling formula to satiate the Cosmopolitan readership.

Actually, Girls' Guide hits the entire rack of women's magazines, from Seventeen on up. The book starts with Jane Rosenal as a 14-year-old, decoding her brother Henry's behavior with the girlfriends he brings home:

I was surprised how long Henry sat with us on the porch, as my mother turned the topic to summer, touching upon such controversial issues as corn on the cob (Silver Queen was best), mosquitoes (pesky), and tennis (good exercise).

Finally, Henry did get up. He went outside as though on a mission. He might be going to check on the crab traps or to see if we'd brought the bikes; he could do whatever he wanted... While Mother hostessed and Girlfriend guested, Younger Sister stood up. When there was a pause in their nicing, I made my mouth move smileward: I'd love to stay and talk, but I have to go shoot some heroin now.

With Jane narrating throughout, the chapters then skip to various points in her life: a vacation with her first serious boyfriend; her career struggle as an editorial assistant in the New York book-publishing world; her relationship with an editor 28 years her senior; and the death of her father. In between, an odd, unnecessary chapter is thrown in, narrated by the woman who lives downstairs from Jane. You keep expecting this chapter to eventually connect with the rest of the plot, but it never does.

Bank's writing is clean and light, and the pages fly by at warp speed. Jane's descriptions are almost like a conversation between girlfriends, fraught with humor and a self-deprecating honesty. Like Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones, what's most endearing about Jane is her fallibility. She goofs up. She questions her own self-worth. When she speaks of her career in publishing, Bank writes, "I'd been a rising star at H-- until Mimi Howlett, the new executive editor, decided I was just the light of an airplane... [I]t was like she was a different species from me. She had the lollipop proportions of a model -- big head, stick figure -- pale skin, wintergreen eyes, and a nose barely big enough to breathe out of... [S]he might have been a romantic heroine from a novel, The Age of Innocence, maybe, except she was with me, in my sacky wool dress, a worker in a documentary about the lumpen proletariat." At times, however, the wit gets in the way of the storytelling. It's as if Bank, like her heroine, has trouble expressing emotional intimacy, so she hides herself behind the jokes.

Bank still manages to perfectly capture the delicate dance of a relationship, and many women will find themselves nodding in understanding at Jane's actions. Objectively, for instance, Jane realizes that her relationship with the older editor isn't right for her, even though she can't leave him. She even purchases a copy of How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right (a thinly disguised fictional version of The Rules, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider), which she attempts to use as a guide to behavior, while her inner voice dukes it out with the two authors in her head.

But Jane is not the post-feminist, lonely, single girl whom many readers will dismiss her as being. As she grows up through the chapters, it's clear that, with each relationship, Jane refines what she wants in a man. The final formula is someone who will love her for all the things she is, not what they want her to be. If that sounds like the type of advice your hopelessly out-of-touch grandmother gives you, there's also a commonsense wisdom to it. Although I trail the eldest Jane by about 10 years, trial and error would lead me to agree with her.

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing doesn't have anything more profound to offer on human existence than the after-school-special platitude "just be yourself." But when a story is told this cleverly to this single-girl book reviewer, it's remarkably reassuring. | September 1999


SHARON PIAN CHAN is a reporter for The Seattle Times. This is her first piece for January Magazine.