Normally, an unknown author with a debut collection of short stories would be little more than a blip on the radar of New York's publishing scene. But when Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing went up for sale, tongues wagged and eight publishing houses competed for rights. To come out on top, Viking Press forked over a whopping $275,000 to the author.
Why? Perhaps because Viking recognized it as the perfect follow-up to their No. 1 best-seller of last year, Bridget Jones's Diary, a novel about a calorie-counting career girl who puts Ally McBeal's neuroses to shame. Like Bridget, Girls' Guide heroine Jane Rosenal lives in the city, works in a publishing house and wants a man.
Unlike Bridget, Jane is normal. Her family is only mildly dysfunctional, and as a child, her biggest complaint was that she no longer got to spend summers in Nantucket. Sure, she goes out with a guy more than twice her age, but how odd is that?
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To say that Jane is just like the rest of us is not to say she's boring. In fact, the superglue of the collection, which takes her from a wiseass 14-year-old to a wiseass twentysomething, is her sense of humor. "I can't believe you just walked up and kissed him...without even sniffing his butt first," she tells her dog as they skulk past the apartment of a love interest. And anxious in the presence of her bitchy boss, she gets annoyed with herself for lapsing into "a no-running-water Appalachian accent."
But The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing is about more than job traumas and manhunts. In "You Could Be Anyone," Jane gets breast cancer. And still she retains her humor, imagining her aberrant cells "as sinister and black-clad, smoking cigarettes as they cluster in the dark S&M club of your body."
The book strikes its only false note in the last story, where Bank mocks that man-snaring via manipulation guide, The Rules. When Jane meets Mr. Right, she resorts to artifice, refusing to return his calls and going on other dates even though she doesn't want to. Surprise, surprise, he begins to lose interest. Don't worry. Jane figures out the moral of the story: Be yourself a trite conclusion, perhaps, but very healthy, very well-adjusted. Very normal.
Melissa Bank reads Tuesday, July 27, at 7:00 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, (713) 523-0701. Free