Not long ago, Random House sent a number of free books to the Nassau Weekly in the hopes that we would exercise our considerable influence on campus to publicize and review their products. One volume in particular (a bright pink thing called Anatomy of a Single Girl) caught my eye. It wasn’t just the garish cover or the titillating title, it was—actually, no, it was mostly those things.
For quite literally as long as I can remember, I have loved to read more than I have loved almost anything. This book would be a challenge to that love, but I was excited to see what I might find. Daria Snadowsky’s second novel may not have been crafted for me, but in a sense that only made it more of an adventure.
Before I continue, the obvious point alluded to above deserves extra emphasis: I, a twenty-year-old male, am not the target demographic. It’s a young adult book for girls, which is not my usual jam. Much more up my alley was the work of fiction I finished directly before Single Girl, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Woolf’s prose (who am I kidding?—the novel is a poem) draws you in, entrancing you as she leaps from consciousness to consciousness, detailing the everyday reflections of wonderfully complex characters as they endure the impersonal passage of time. Her phrases rise and fall like the waves whose imagery she so expertly evokes, and as with waves a lapse in concentration can leave you lost, disoriented, buffeted between paragraphs with no sense of direction, but when you find her rhythm and stay there nothing is more magical than letting those waves take you to a place where only they can go.
I bring this up because Lighthouse, like Single Girl, recreates the internal musings of the female mind, but Lighthouse, unlike Single Girl, endeavors to provoke thought. Lighthouse guides you places, whereas Single Girl simply drags you along. Reading Lighthouse is an active experience; reading Single Girl is laughably passive. It is written from the first-person perspective of 18-year-old collegiate Dominique “Dom” Baylor, but the writing feels more than two years younger than me. Our heroine is some months removed from a traumatic break-up with her first boyfriend/love/sexual partner; as a veteran of a similar experience, I confess I felt real pangs of guilt as she sent bitter thoughts toward the ex who dumped her. To my horror, this book was making me feel something more intimate—if ultimately less moving—than anything in Woolf’s opus.
But the story of that ex is the story of a different novel, Anatomy of a Boyfriend. Boyfriend was Snadowsky’s first effort, published a full six years before Single Girl, in January 2007. I haven’t read Boyfriend, and I certainly don’t plan to (I’ll be busy rereading Mrs. Dalloway), but I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much. In an online dialogue between Snadowsky and her fans held on Random House’s website, she assures that they “function nice as stand-alones…you don’t need to read BOYFRIEND to enjoy and understand SINGLE GIRL.” I can say honestly (albeit somewhat ashamedly) that of this, I am the living proof.
Single Girl follows Dom at her home in Fort Meyers, Florida during the summer after her freshman year. She struggles to re-find her footing as she navigates a hospital internship, miscommunications with her parents, the whims and fancies of her impetuous BFF, and, of course, boys. Especially boys. One boy in particular. His name’s Guy, and, what the heck, I liked Guy.
Rather, I couldn’t help projecting myself onto him and liking the version of him I created. Guy is not a very well crafted character; in fact, other than Dom, Snadowsky doesn’t seem interested in adding a 3rd dimension to anybody. What we know about Guy is that ”He’s smokin’, all right: square jaw, Greek nose, full lips, slight tan,” and that he’s “sensitive,” saying things like “How could a guy enjoy it if the girl doesn’t really want it?” He also doesn’t believe in true love or commitment or having children, not for any particular reason but because this provides for the novel’s central conflict with the more romantic Dom. “I try never to have more stuff than I can fit in my car,” he brags. “I hate feeling weighed down.”
The only other thing we know about Guy is that he’s a “physics nut” who makes Dom watch the original Star Wars trilogy on their first date; for better or for worse, that was precisely enough to win this astrophysics major’s heart. But I suspect even without these surface similarities I would have seen myself in Guy, and that I am not alone among males reading this book. (At least in the respect of identifying with Guy; in a literal sense I might actually be the only male reading this book.) Guy is the only male character given much of a personality, but the personality he is given is hopelessly generic; even his non-descript name helps to render him a canvas for male reader(s) to paint their own image. Although he may be “devastatingly cute,” Guy is just a guy. Snadowsky corroborates my theory: “I named him Guy because that’s just what he is. A typical good guy but with flaws and limitations like everyone else.”
One wonders whether Guy’s tabula rasa is a shrewd technique or simply sloppy writing; had we seen Guy through his own eyes, or even through those of his family, the people who have known him for years, would he still seem so typical? But Snadowsky does not grant herself Woolf’s freedom of drifting through perspectives, and instead all we get is Dom’s. Maybe that’s why nobody seems 3-dimensional: the poor character development is not a flaw but simply a reflection of Dom’s intense self-obsession.
She is generally likable but often frustrating, as when she gives her parents the silent treatment because they decide to move to Gainesville without her input. Ugh, seriously Dom, grow up. She has not realized that the world does not revolve around Dom; whether Snadowsky has realized this remains an open question.
Dom’s narrow mind is not quite as painful as it sounds, however. She makes up for the lack of breadth with depth, by which I mean that she thinks a lot. This is both fortunate and necessary; it wouldn’t be much of a book if our narrator didn’t have much to say. A significant portion of the content is just her stream-of-conscious opinions on Guy, which are tedious and funny and juvenile and, most shockingly, occasionally insightful.
They also include this gem: “I wonder how many more penises I’ll have inside me in my lifetime.”
The sexual stuff, while realistic given Dom’s age, always feels out of place considering the immaturity of her narration. But her overall approach to romance, the way she overanalyzes, self-doubts, changes her mind, gets excited, and daydreams, feels strangely real. Even while I dismissed her as silly, shortsighted, obnoxious, and young, I was forced to admit that I have had similar thought processes run through my own mind, that I too am often silly, shortsighted, obnoxious, and young.
It is tempting to simply roll one’s eyes at Dom, but who among us would volunteer to have our innermost feelings read by strangers? Personally I cringe at the thought—undoubtedly there are times I might appear girl-crazy and pathetic—but this knowledge enables me to refrain from judging Dom. The absurdity of her feelings just means she’s a person, too.
There was a time when a book like Single Girl would have made me angry; no one should be allowed to read such drivel when works like To the Lighthouse exist! But despite her novel’s simplicity, I’m not convinced that Dom is less realistic than Mrs. Ramsay or Lily Briscoe. Woolf’s characters may be layered, distinct, and intelligent, but there’s something to be said for stupidity. There is a refreshing, delightful humanity to Anatomy of a Single Girl, not despite but because of the fact that, for the most part, it’s shallow and dumb.