Sigrid Nunez has established herself as an award-winning author whose work has grown more ambitious in scope, moving from autobiographical themes to larger historical concerns. Her first novel, A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), drew upon her mixed cultural heritage as a daughter of a Panamanian Chinese father and a German mother in a Brooklyn housing project. While the intervening novels, Naked Sleeper (1996) and Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998), mostly portray the private world of writers, Nunez’s fourth novel, For Rouenna (2002), concerns a brazen, loudmouth woman, a former Army nurse, who narrates to a semiretired author what service in the Vietnam War was like. With this novel, Nunez hit upon the formula of using dramatically contrasting characters to help portray the complexities of class and race in a specific historical milieu.
The Last of Her Kind continues in this vein by dramatizing many of the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s through the perspectives of two young women who meet as roommates at Barnard College, part of Columbia University in New York City. While Georgette George comes from a poor area in upstate New York, Ann Drayton is from an upper-class family; she grew up with servants and had an entire floor of the house to herself. Ann is successful, smart, and hard-working. Her teachers think she will likely become a leader someday. Instead of being able to appreciate her background, however, Ann loathes the inequalities between the rich and the poor and therefore rejects the example of her parents. To Ann, her parents’ lifestyle is a “bourgeois horror show,” her world full of “white skin privilege” which she finds despicable because it benefits from the sufferings of the poor.
This impulse to reject her heritage causes her to embrace Georgette as a friend at first, but Georgette has too much experience with her abusive mother to want to romanticize her background. After an initial series of late-night talks in their dorm room, the two friends gradually grow apart, although Georgette keeps up with Ann’s exploits for much of the rest of her narrative.
Though the novel largely focuses on the two women, Nunez paints an interesting portrait of the unrest of the times. In 1968, college students were just learning how to revolt against the establishment and the Vietnam War. As Georgette puts it at one point, “This was the time when the whole world had begun to be riveted on the doings of youth.” Ann begins college by giving away all of her fancy clothes, and then her photograph, posing underneath posters of Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X, is published in Newsweek magazine, with the quotation “What we want is for America finally to face up to its crimes.” While Georgette is ambivalent about political engagement, Ann embraces various radical causes that call into question both her class and her race. As Nunez has written,When I went off to college in ’68, I was amazed at the way students romanticized poor people and people of color, African-Americans in particular. It was fascinating to me, having grown up in the projects, to keep meeting people who claimed they wished they were black, and to watch some of them even trying or pretending to be black.
Ironically, given all of Ann’s efforts to champion their rights, often African Americans in the novel resent her efforts on their behalf.
The rebellious youth of the 1960’s had immense freedoms, but as a consequence some put themselves into risky situations that the hippie culture was reluctant to acknowledge. For instance, Georgette likes to walk through a dangerous New York City park and sing songs to herself. One day, a stranger accosts her, drags her underneath a tree, and rapes her. Because the college students have such an uneasy relationship with the police, she does not report it. Instead, once she learns of the crime, Ann gives Georgette over to her radical friend, Sasha, who drives Georgette home to her parents’ house and gives her some heroin so she can forget about the rape by getting high. Georgette does not know that as Sasha does this, she also plans on robbing her parents’ house as Georgette sleeps upstairs. When her parents arrive the next morning and find Georgette unconscious, they do not know whether to report their daughter to the police or not. As Georgette looks back on the event later, she realizes that more complicated...
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