We gave it an A-
Jane Rosenal, the heroine of Melissa Bank’s irresistible novel-as-story collection The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, would have no trouble recognizing Bridget Jones as a soul sister. Both are in their mid-30s. Both are single. And since both know that the line between security and bag-ladyhood is as thin as a nonfat potato chip, they navigate it with the same droll, fatalistic sense of humor.
In this swinging, funny, and tender study of contemporary relationships, examined in seven linked stories, Bank refutes, once and for all, the popular notion of neurotic thirtysomething single women. Her Jane isn’t sex-starved, fertility-obsessed, or magnetically drawn to making foolish choices. She’s just a bright, warm, attractive advertising executive with a functioning family, a klatch of friends, an ex-boyfriend or two, and a confidence that her instincts are essentially in working order, even if her romantic life is subject to power outages.
Jane knows what she likes — a credit to Bank’s zesty storytelling voice — even as a bratty 14-year-old in the opening story, ”Advanced Beginners.” Observing the short-lived relationship between her older brother and his new girlfriend during the course of a summer at the Rosenal family’s rented summer house on the New Jersey shore, the kid sister immediately establishes her characteristic outspokenness. In time, we piece together the trajectory of Jane’s first romance, with a callow beau who, in ”The Floating House,” plays psychological games with her while on a Caribbean vacation. We follow the grown Jane through an extended relationship with a much older man — an experience not horrible or destructive but simply, in the end, not what she wants. In ”The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine,” Jane (blessed with static-free lines of communication to her family) grieves as the father she loves succumbs to leukemia. In ”You Could Be Anyone,” one of the collection’s two non-Jane-specific stories, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer is tended to by a lover she doesn’t love.
As is inevitable in a collection, some stories are stronger and more passionately presented than others. (Bank frustratingly collapses ”You Could Be Anyone” into a sketch when it teases with material enough for a novel.) And sometimes, just occasionally, the author’s snappy heroine is a gust or two breezier and more self-congratulatory than circumstances require. But all is redeemed — and the prepublication excitement about Girls’ Guide is warranted — by the title story, in which Jane tries, hilariously, to ”meet and keep” a man by using the kind of guidelines set forth in such regressive maiden manuals as The Rules.
”It’s like I’ve been trying to catch a fish by swimming around with them,” says the well-meaning fellow single friend who presses the book on our girl. ”I try different rivers. I change my strokes. But nothing works. Then I find this guide that tells me about fishing poles and bait, and how to cast and what to do when the line gets taut. The depressing part is that you know it’ll work.”
The revolutionary, exciting part of Girls’ Guide is that Jane learns she doesn’t need rules, or wiles, or a slimming wardrobe. Like Bridget Jones, she just needs to be herself and stay in the water. Ditto for Bank, who fishes deep in her literary debut and hooks a winner. A-