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The Boston Phoenix Incomplete Guide

Not quite a novel and not quite a story collection, this engaging work of fiction leaves you wishing it offered more

By Katherine Guckenberger

JULY 19, 1999: 

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (Viking), 272 pages, $23.95

There's a breed of book out there that's a cross between a novel and a collection of short stories, and it's about time someone gave it a name. I'd like to vote for an amalgam of "collection" and "novel." "Collectel," however, sounds like a dinosaur or a prescription medicine. But "novection," which I like because it rhymes with "confection," might just work; the fact that it calls to mind a light and insubstantial sweet is especially appropriate.

Sometimes described (erroneously) as "loosely linked" short stories, novections purport to be meatier than collections and more digestible than novels. Though each chapter in a novection is a free-standing short story, the overall effect, unlike that of a regular collection or even a collection of linked stories, is novel-like: novections have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and progress chronologically, the way long narratives should. Novections typically fail, however, to satisfy a reader the way an inspired collection or a good old-fashioned novel can. In addition, they run the risk of seeming artificial. Why not just write a real novel? Young writers, many of whom have graduated from MFA programs with portfolios full of short stories, know that collections simply don't command as much money or attention as novels, which are considered (again, erroneously) more difficult to write. So they impose structure on a bunch of "loosely linked" stories, and voilà! -- a novection. Unfortunately, the result is too often meager.

Melissa Bank's first book, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, fits this description. A collection of short stories that cleverly spoofs self-help books and handbooks, The Girls' Guide is divided into seven "chapters," most of which are narrated from the perspective of a likable and loony young woman with the lowest-common-denominator name of Jane. Each chapter is preceded by an epigraph from disparate and unlikely sources: Amy Vanderbilt's Book of Etiquette, Dr. Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, and The Rules, that controversial step-by-step guide to snaring the man of your dreams. Bank is an infectious, funny writer, and in her skillful hands, The Girls' Guide nearly transcends the limitations of the novection; that it does not is more a failure of the form than of the author.

The best clue to both the attitude and the theme of The Girls' Guide comes from the epigraph to the book itself: "One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop. The last stanza is a well-known mantra for broken-hearted souls everywhere: " -- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident/the art of losing's not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." The Girls' Guide isn't a soupy book about lost love. In fact, it's an honest and triumphant coming-of-age story.

In the first chapter, "Advanced Beginners," Jane is a precocious, wisecracking teenager who likes to read books that are inappropriate for her age and feels insecure about her breasts, which put her "in constant danger of humiliation." Like so many adolescent girls, she is unnecessarily worried that she'll be defeated by situations she hasn't even encountered yet. When her brother and his girlfriend break up, Jane's irrational reaction reveals her true fear: "It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone. I had no idea myself how to do it." Of course, by the time Jane is actually tested, she's harnessed her pluck, and that's when The Girls' Guide becomes the kind of book you can't put down.

Jane's first love is Jamie, whom she meets in New York after college. In "The Floating House," the second chapter of this novection, which takes place about 10 years after the first, Jane and Jamie visit Jamie's ex-girlfriend, Bella, and Bella's husband, Yves, in St. Croix. Bank immediately makes it clear that the situation is ripe for disaster. Bella is "turn-and-stare gorgeous," and kisses Jamie hello, European-style, "cheek, cheek, cheek." Jane, already intimidated by Bella's beauty, is "so thrown off by Bella's warmth" that she accidentally calls her "Belly." Of course, underneath her charm, Bella is a snake. As she flirts shamelessly with Jamie right under Jane's nose, Jane vengefully flirts with Yves, eventually breaking Bella's resolve and forcing her to admit to premeditated mischievousness. Chalk one up for Jane.

Fortunately, by the time Jane starts dating Archie Knox, an alcoholic book editor 28 years her senior, she has some experience under her belt; on the other hand, even the most expert romantic would have trouble handling Archie. When the two start dating, he claims he's on the wagon, and Jane, unfamiliar with the telltale signs of surreptitious drinking -- the forced nonchalance, the adult-onset diabetes -- believes him. On the surface, theirs is a storybook affair: Jane, an associate editor with little money or status, is wined and dined by the most eligible mentor in New York. Archie is a shoulder to lean on when Jane's father dies and when she's fired from her job; whenever she's down, he cooks her favorite foods and fills his house with peonies. But Archie's problems catch up with him, and Jane realizes she's not in love. When Jane refuses Archie's marriage proposal, their relationship ends.

In the final chapter, "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," Jane, now working at an advertising agency, abandons everything she's learned and attempts to make a handsome man fall in love with her by following a guide similar to The Rules. But by going out of her way to suppress her personality, she merely winds up confusing the object of her affection, Robert. He walks, and Jane, miserable, tracks him down in order to confess. "You get all these voices about what a woman is supposed to be like . . . [a]nd I've spent my whole life trying not to hear them. But . . . I wanted to be with you so much that I listened." Then Jane cracks a joke, and she wins Robert's heart. The message, "Be yourself," is loud and clear and corny, but I wanted to cheer anyway.

Two of the stories in The Girls' Guide do not focus on Jane and her misadventures, and including them here is the only obvious mistake Bank makes; they stick out like sore thumbs. Jane is such a winning character, the reader will be inclined to skim the other chapters in order to get back to her story. That's what makes this a bittersweet novection. What more might we have learned had Bank stuck only with Jane? Would we have a better idea of what makes her tick, of where life will take her? There's no way to know. We've been cheated, and there's no getting around that disappointment.

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