I cannot say for sure when I first read Melissa Bank's The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I must have been in the very earliest of my twenties, because I know it was already dear to me by the time I graduated from university. It is, for me, a near-perfect book, one that I have pressed into the hands of several female friends and recommended on lists both solicited and not.
From its pages spill lightly scented wit and wisdom: How to be, how to see, how to cope. It is easily the most influential book of my third decade, and every time I reread it – or sections of it, at least – I am struck again by its neatness and completeness.
The idea of women writing for other women works of fiction that turn out to be manuals for life is nothing new. Although “women’s writing” is often seen as a literary ghetto (fiction is fiction, dammit), there is value in naming something for its most base characteristic. Buchi Emecheta did it, as did Virginia Woolf – and many more still will. The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a book by a woman, that centres on the interior life of a woman, and that, on my anecdotal evidence, has found an audience in the hearts of many women. That is not a coincidence.
Before and after Jane, the book's protagonist, there have been other women. I read Laura Dave’s London is the Best City in America, identifying closely, in the weird middle ground between finishing university and half-heartedly going into the world of work, with her protagonist, Emmy. And I read Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada and Emily Giffin’s Something… books as well. The heroes of these books (interestingly they’re all white, which tells its own tale about book publishing and the assumed “universality” of the white experience) were important to me, and contributed to the eventual confidence with which I forged ahead (well, meandered) in my life. But they were not Jane.
In Jane was the idea of myself as I was, but also the self I wanted to be. I wanted to be suave enough to go out with – nay, be actively pursued by – an older gentleman, tangibly literary and distinguished and interesting enough to have picked up a past: booze problem and ex-wives included. I wanted to go on a glamorous holiday with my boyfriend and have our fidelity tested by our hostess. I longed to have a chic, childless aunt who spoke in borderline mysterious vignettes that could’ve been culled from Flannery O’Connor or Dorothy Parker. And while I didn’t want a terrible illness to befall me, was I averse to wishing for a Big Life Event™ that would transform and transport me? Of course I wasn’t. Girls’ Guide gave me that with no effort whatsoever on my part.
But the book is, as I said earlier, nothing if not complete. So in a life that is often kissed with good fortune and ease – the life many newly minted young women in the city enjoy – Bank sprinkles grit, even occasionally upgrading the pebble in the shoe to a full-on boulder. There are the small disappointments, like stumbling upon the fallibility of a sibling (at one point Jane muses: “It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone”) and big ones, such as near-debilitating family bereavement. There is everyday grief, such as the sinking realisation that a much-wanted thing cannot happen for whatever reason, but also the type to cause a woman to reach for her "big girl pants".
And Jane emerges from it, sometimes wiser, sometimes not, but never doing anything that seems out of place or out of character or crucially, out of time. These are mistakes many women make and the decisions they take, perfectly in tune with their life situation: age, confidence level, income, access to familial and romantic love, and so on. Jane and I were different in a number of small and big ways, not least in our respective natural habitats: I am a city girl through and through, while she is thrillingly (for me) suburban. But I saw enough of myself in her to keep her close: a hesitancy that often tipped into insecurity, sometimes matched with an incongruous utter self-belief; an awareness that bad things (the type that don’t kill you even when they feel like they might) happen; a need to please and a fear of rocking the boat; a close and much-valued relationship with our fathers; the temerity to presume a life working in the arts. Jane and I seemed to know only what we did not want, rather than what we did.
The difference between reading Girls’ Guide now, in my early thirties, and back in my early twenties is as wide as the sea. For one thing, I have finally lived through some of the experiences rather than consuming them vicariously. What was always most compelling thing about the book was is its disjointedness: It is a collection of stories with many of the same players over a period of years. It will never be considered such, but it is a Great American Novel, all 274 pages of it.
It opens with a 14-year-old Jane at the family holiday home in New Jersey, meeting her older brother’s new (older) girlfriend for the first time – and witnessing a love affair up close for the first time. From there, we see her post-college and in the world of work. We see her at home, in love, and firmly out of it. In one story, “The Best Possible Light”, she is merely alluded to, never seen, barely mentioned. The finished product is a series of carefully selected events, interlocking to form a big picture in which Jane is often – but not always – the star of her own life. Her landscape is ever-changing, and she takes us along on very specific journeys into them. There are men, platonic, romantic, familial, and some a weird mix: Henry, Archie, her dad, Jamie, Yves and so on. But there are many more women: Apollinaire, Bella, Sophie, Mimi, her female relatives (mum, aunt, grandmother), the meta Bonnie and Faith. Through them Bank sets out a manual for life. By the time we exit Jane’s life, somewhere in her thirties, the rulebook is not quite finished, but with such a good grounding, it suggests, how could you possibly fail at life now?
It took Bank more than a decade to write the book, and she did so while working at a job she didn't exactly love. "I did about a million rewrites," she told The Guardian. That job was as a copywriter, and Bank apparently declined promotions in order to write at her own pace. "The more I knew Jane the more I'd go back and throw out a story or do a new story about when she was younger. I think it was because I was getting older and understood things differently." It shows. Those rewrites served two purposes for me: They made the book a lean, vital thing (it was a bestseller in the US and here in the UK). They also helped me be a better reader, and, hopefully, a better writer. Bank's book was a writing manual, helping me identify the stories that are worth telling and how to tell them. (It is perhaps no coincidence that she is now faculty staff at Stony Brook Southampton University in New York, having written a 2005 follow up, The Wonder Spot.) There is a moment in the titular story where Jane sits with her best friend, Sophie, who is recently married, and Bank writes: "We have so much to say to each other that only quiet will do." In "You Could Be Anyone", she swoops in on a moment between an unnamed couple in their early days, writing: "You can feel that he wants to own you – not like an object, but like a good dream he wants to keep having. He lets you know that you already own him." In "My Old Man", she delivers us the instant a woman crosses a line: "I gave up my apartment and moved in." Her style is clean and (deceptively) simple, and she zeroes in on the smallest moments – and the emotions therein – in electrifying ways. It taught me how I wanted to write. Upon my first meeting with a would-be literary agent, it was my first reference. "I would love to write a sort of British Girls' Guide," I told him earnestly. "Lots of people would," he replied wisely. "It's very hard to do."