The Girls' Guide to Hunting & Fishing|
by Melissa Bank,
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Comparisons between Melissa Banks’ The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Viking, 274 pages, $33.99 cloth, ISBN: 067088300X) and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary are inevitable: both feature breezy, witty, single heroines haplessly negotiating family, careers, and romance. While The Girls’ Guide is less raucous and wryly hysterical than Diary, it is also more poignant as Banks lightly traces a painted fingernail around the wounds caused by jealousy, loss, illness, and death.
Despite the false impression created, The Girls’ Guide is not a novel but a chronological progression of seven linked stories, most of which are narrated by the winsome protagonist, Jane Rosenal. We first meet Jane in “Advanced Beginners” where, at fourteen, she studies her brother Henry’s relationship with an older woman. In the next story, “The Floating House”, Henry advises a grown-up Jane on the fickleness of men’s affections after her boyfriend, Jamie, carries on a flirtation with his now married ex while the four are vacationing together. At twenty-five in “My Old Man”, Jane leaves Jamie for a famous editor, Archie Knox, an alcoholic diabetic almost thirty years her senior whom she meets through her novelist aunt, Rita. He helps her with her work as an associate editor at another publishing house and corrects her grammar when she speaks. After Aunt Rita dies, she leaves him and moves into Rita’s apartment. He writes a popular novel about their affair.
Unfortunately, the tight structure of the book breaks down with “The Best Possible Light”, the story of a family gathering in an apartment below Aunt Rita’s. Despite narrative and thematic connections, it is a confusing disruption, and when Jane returns in “The Worst Thing A Suburban Girl Could Imagine”, some of the trust between reader and narrator has been broken. This is a shame, as it could be the most affecting part of her story. Jane discovers her father is dying of leukemia. She also has a glamourous new boss who is suavely demoting her. Jane returns to Archie, who stages a health crisis that has Jane flying from one hospital bed to another. After her father dies, Jane quits her job and finds happiness in office temp work. Like Jane, who for all her wisecracking smartness and plainly stated astuteness just wants to follow the easy road, the narrative glides on the surface of these events, using humour to sidestep, rather than throw into relief, the pain of living.
Banks’ touch is at its most winning in the last story. Jane meets Robert the cartoonist at her best friend’s wedding. Determined not to mess this up, Jane becomes brainwashed by a rules-type guide. This delightful parody is divertingly funny, the obviousness of both subject and satire a fantastic frolic, the finale a happy ending of deprogramming and romantic denouement. On the whole, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is an entertaining and easy read that skims over some touching territory; in parts, it is a canny and lovely tickle.