Melissa Bank’s first novel, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, is composed of a series of related short stories that chronicle the romantic life of Jane Rosenal from the time she is fourteen until she is in her mid-thirties. Read together, they form a novel that presents the reader with a sharp look at love in the 1990’s and an introduction to the lively, perceptive voice of Jane, who narrates most of the stories. Particularly appealing is the fact that Jane never defines herself in terms of marriage (indeed, at the end of the novel, no marriage plans are in sight); she never sees romance as crucial to her well- being. She merely wants to understand love (if that is possible) and to feel sure that she is able to respond emotionally, as love requires.
Jane’s first introduction to the confusion love can cause occurs when she is fourteen and her brother Henry brings home his girlfriend, Julia. She is twenty-eight to Henry’s twenty, and she has wrought a number of changes in him of the sort that only a little sister can see with such candor. He is now called “Hank”; he has grown a beard, and he kisses Jane when he arrives. Moreover, Julia, though nice enough and very good- looking, has a pretentious vocabulary. Although Jane spends some time analyzing the relationship with her best friend Linda, a budding sociologist, Jane gradually warms to Julia and sides with her when the love affair cools. She is sympathetic but confused when Henry tries to explain how the romance failed as a result of Henry’s uncomfortable experience at a party given by Julia’s wealthy parents: “It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone. I had no idea myself how to do it.” The story not only introduces the novel’s theme; it gives the reader a nice glimpse of Jane’s eye for social satire (as when she notes that when the family has guests, her mother’s task is to provide all the food and chitchat while her father’s task is to read) and humor (as in a funny scene in which Jane and Linda say no to drugs by pretending that they have only recently come through a detox program).
The grown-up Jane gets another, even more confusing look at love when Jamie, her first “real” boyfriend, takes her to spend a week on St. Croix with his old college girlfriend Bella and her husband Yves, a couple as glamorous as their seaside villa. From the first night, however, Bella makes Jane uncomfortable by referring to her past with Jamie. When Jamie asks Jane how she likes Bella, she says, “I myself have dated several mannequins,” but she agrees to give Bella a chance. Over the week, however, it becomes clear that Bella is making a play for Jamie, and that her husband is doing the same to Jane.
Jamie seems naïvely unaware both of Bella’s intentions and Jane’s growing anger. He is, after all, capable of telling Jane that she could speak French as well as Bella if only she would let herself: “It’s like Shakespeare—after a certain point, it just comes over you,” he claims. After a particularly disastrous game of strip poker, Jane confronts the others, demanding to know what is happening, only to realize that Bella had no idea that Yves had been courting Jane. At the end of the week, Jane and Jamie have an air-clearing quarrel. When Jamie apologizes, she notes, “It scares me how fast I go from disliking to loving him, and I wonder if it’s this way for everyone.”
That these events are filtered through Jane’s witty consciousness escalates the story from adolescent romance to comedy of manners. At breakfast after the poker blow-up Jane notes, “Here we are on Day Six of our visit, having a Day One conversation. There’s no evidence that anyone except me remembers Night Five. They’re all wearing pokerless faces.”
Jane moves into her twenties and enters the publishing world. She has been given a sense of adult style by her great-aunt Rita, so she feels ready for an adult love affair with Archie Knox, twenty-eight years her senior, a writer and an alcoholic in intermittent recovery. Most of the center of the novel traces the course of their affair. Archie’s good looks, his knowledge of the publishing world—even his tendency to take Jane under his wing and school her—contribute to his magnetism. On the other hand, his impotence (from diabetes, presumably—Bank is very indirect about this), his lapses from sobriety, and the tantrums that accompany...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)