The book jacket says this 2006 book is about two women from very different backgrounds who met as freshmen at Barnard in 1968. One, Ann, is from a wealthy family, successful at any endeavor she takes up. The other is Georgette, the narrator, who comes from an underprivileged background involving heavy drinking and an abusive mother in upstate New York. The two become very close, and though Georgette is drawn to the brilliant Ann, she doesn’t share her idealizing of the poor, a category Georgette hopes to escape. Ann is relentless in her hatred of those in her own class, and is cruel and ugly to her parents. As the book blurb tells us, Georgette and Ann have a violent fight and their connection ends.
Georgette loses interest in school, begins working in Manhattan, and becomes consumed with her runaway sister Solange who turns up on her doorstep. She tells us in depth about the experience of the young teenage runaway in those years so now we have the twin stories of life at Barnard and on the road. The privileged Ann, consumed with seeing the world in stark political terms, is a contrast to the powerless Solange who must escape her family and trust strangers and who finds kindness in that life. Another part of this picture is Georgette, who makes a pleasant easy-going life for herself in New York, drifting into jobs, going back to school, marrying twice, having children.
As a person who graduated from college in 1967, I have plenty of memories of those strange times. I stayed in the university community and observed at close range the political upheaval of those years and saw people completely reject social norms. In 1970 we lived in a rooming house in Denver where young drifters took on the challenge of revealing their world to us relatively conformist oldies. Those sweet but tough kids came to mind as I read about Solange. It was such a strange time: all the rules were open to question, and I wondered what would happen next.
Ann comes to Georgette’s attention again eight years after their fight when she kills one policeman and wounds another. She acted because from her second floor window she saw the policeman threatening her boyfriend with his gun and yelling racial slurs. She shot the policemen to protect her boyfriend, but the second policeman killed him. She is pilloried in the newspaper on the assumption it was a political act to kill the policemen. Georgette always maintained that Ann’s act was to protect her boyfriend. The upshot is that Ann is sent to jail where she continues her work for the underclass.
Years later it turns out that because of a complicated set of circumstances Georgette has the power to publish works in a well-known and respected magazine. That is how we learn from a lifer fellow inmate the story of Ann’s time in prison, and in particular, how she won the respect and friendship of this woman.
There was much that was appealing and gripping about the book; it called up so many insightful flashes from those years. Its strength for me did not rest solely on the Ann-Georgette connection as I had expected. Solange’s experiences of those times were also evocative for me.
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, 375 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.