By Sigrid Nunez. Published in 2005.
The idealistic radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s has always bewildered me. I remember watching The Weather Underground, a documentary about the Weathermen, a violent organization of that era that sought to provoke revolution against the United States government, and feeling overwhelmed by the surge of conflicting emotions it inspired. As much as I abhor the violence of 1960s extremists and sneer at their misguided strategies and pity their naïveté and disdain many of their goals (I don’t support revolution, so back off, Gonzalez), I envy their conviction that real change is possible and that they had the power to effect it. I can’t comprehend that kind of idealism because I myself have never known it.
But I’m not the only one who was born disillusioned; one could say the same of many if not most of my generation. That’s certainly the implication of the title of Sigrid Nunez’s book, The Last of Her Kind, about a young woman who comes of age during the ’60s and ’70s. The novel’s protagonist and narrator is not, however, the heirless paragon, Ann Drayton, but her erstwhile friend, Georgette George. We see Ann through Georgette’s eyes, and we, too, chafe at Ann’s self-righteousness yet respond nonetheless to her principled certainty and charisma. She might be sanctimonious, but she holds herself to the same standards she does everyone else, and that relentlessness makes her far more intriguing than your average holier-than-thou hippie.
Nunez’s decision to tell this story from Georgette’s perspective was the right one — Ann is too remote for real identification — but when the narrative strays too far from Ann, it loses urgency. Georgette’s other foil, her runaway sister Solange, is a poor substitute for the brilliant, infuriating Ann. Unstable groupies just aren’t as interesting as volatile radicals.
Fortunately, even when The Last of Her Kind strays too far from Ann and her relationship with Georgette, Nunez’s prose holds my interest. Georgette’s first-person voice, looking back at the incidents described with years’ distance, is pleasantly conversational and insightful, punctuated with allusions to major real-life figures of that era. She seems to be a refreshingly honest narrator, at least as much as one can be, probing her own shortcomings and acknowledging the fallability of her memory. The only exception to that comes when she slips away from first-person into third-person, to describe a memory to painful to recall directly.
That particular memory has taken on a suspicious sheen of idealization, and so, too, has her final portrait of Ann, as tireless and incorruptible as ever. Although Ann certainly is no angel — she can be violent and cruel and unforgiving and astonishingly unempathetic — she never strays from the code of honor she has created for herself. We never see her falter or break, so over the course of the novel, she sheds some of her humanity and becomes more of a symbol.
That’s certainly a valid literary choice on Nunez’s part, but I would have liked to have understood Ann a bit better, gotten farther inside her head, because she, of course, is the artifact of that bygone era. I have known Georgettes and Solanges, but I have never known an Ann.