Impaled on Beauty. A review of The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

While The Man of My Dreams is set up as a coming-of-age novel, Hannah’s growth is primarily physical rather than emotional. Although it is a rather unsatisfying read in that sense, there are many aspects to this capable narrative which make it stand out. The first is the unusual narrative voice.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Man of My Dreams
By Curtis Sittenfeld
August 2006, Demy HB, RRPA$32.95, ISBN 0-330-44128-0, 266pages

There’s something tragic about the character of Hannah Gavener, the protagonist in Curtis Sittenfeld’s second novel. She begins in the slightly vacuous fairy tale of celebrity gossip magazines and never seems to break through the muzzy sense of wanting her own “happily ever after.” Hannah’s alienation and sense of physical awkwardness is one which underlies the book and we follow her emotionally crippled attempts at relationships with an almost frustrated sense of superiority. The opens with the fourteen year old celebrity obsessed Hanna, living with her vivacious aunt Elizabeth while her parents go through a messy divorce, and then jumps five years to Hannah as a Tufts University Freshman. Hannah then gets another year, and three consecutive months before jumping another five years to an adult Hannah at her mother’s second wedding.

While The Man of My Dreams is set up as a coming-of-age novel, Hannah’s growth is primarily physical rather than emotional. Although it is a rather unsatisfying read in that sense, there are many aspects to this capable narrative which make it stand out. The first is the unusual narrative voice. From the beginning, it is clear that the point of view is Hannah’s, and the narrative tone and voice also Hannah’s, but the narrator is still third person omniscient. This sets up a strange dialectic between the person who is telling us about the events, using standard third person devices like “Hannah said,” but who also seems to be experiencing the events with the emotional resonance of Hannah, in the present tense. For example, in the first section, the narrator describes the pool at Hannah’s parents’ country club with the diction and structure of a fourteen year old girl:

There is cement everywhere around the pool, as if it’s in the middle of the sidewalk. At her parents’ country club, the pool is set in flagstone. Also, you have to pay three dollars just to get in here, at the snack bar you use cash instead of signing your family’s name, and you must bring your own towels. The whole place seems slightly unclean and though it is a humid evening, Hannah isn’t sorry she lied about not having a bathing suit.(18)

The reader is made a participant in Hannah’s tremendous self-consciousness as she works through her youth in the search for love and the meaning she feels this would give her life. Although Hannah’s neuroses aren’t formed out of the kind of introspection that you’d expect from such a self-obsessed protagonist, we develop a good sense of her through the discussions she has with the therapist Dr Lewin that Hannah takes on during her Taft years:

Dr. Lewin nodded calmly. (Oh, Dr. Lewin, Hanna sometimes thinks, let it be true that you’re as decent and well adjusted as you appear! Let the life you have put together be genuinely gratifying, make you exempt from all the nuisances and sorrows of everyone else.)(65)

Hannah’s is a detailed and precise personality, and she experiences most of what she does vicariously, in the tortured examination that occurs within her head:

And yet attending to things that make Hannah unhappy – it’s such a natural reflex. It feels so intrinsic; it feels in some ways like who she is. The unflattering things she notices about other people, the comments she makes that get her in trouble, aren’t these truer than small talk and thank-you notes? Worse, but truer. And underneath all the decorum, isn’t most everyone judgmental and disappointed? (127)

Set against Hannah’s paralysis is the overt impulsiveness of her cousin Fig, whom Hannah is continually saving. Although Fig herself isn’t a particularly appealing character, existing mainly in a series of incidents, she brings with her a boyfriend, Henry. Hannah becomes infatuated with Henry, partly because he is the first male she is able to talk to in a friendly rather than reactive way, and partly because of his inaccessibility. It is Hannah’s inability to cross the line from attraction to reaction with Fig’s boyfriend Henry that makes her paralysis so obvious. She carries on a vicarious love affair through tenuous, hint ridden letters that amount to nothing, has a fling with a male form of Fig, and then finally finds herself in a “real” relationship with Mike. Mike makes it clear that Hannah is significantly more attractive than she thinks she is, and he showers her with the kind of affection she had been searching for throughout the novel. However the earth shaking she had always hoped to feel with ‘love’ doesn’t happen and, hiding in her infatuations, Hannah slips off:

She realises she can never express these sentiments, but is she supposed to pretend, even to herself that she doesn’t feel them? (163)

Hannah isn’t completely repressed however. She does manage to reject her father in a restaurant scene full of overly creamy ravioli—her stubborn pride bouncing off his arrogant superficiality, and she walks out on Mike and resolves her future. The Man of My Dreams is not a happy novel by any standards, nor is it redolent with transcendence. In the end, Hannah has removed herself from the narrative so thoroughly that we are left with only a letter, an ending that has been criticised as being too mechanical and obvious. In some ways though, it feels like the reader has been Hannah’s crutch, like Dr. Lewin, and that she has freed herself of us in a structural way, just as she has freed herself from the search for the man of her dreams. The real question is whether, by the end of the book, Hannah has come to terms with her own beauty. One can imagine that the answer is, tentatively, yes, although there is no joy in the revelation, only a kind of resigned acceptance.