It’s rare that a paperback book picked up at random, with no recommendation, no reviews read, ends up being a book you return to over and over again, but that’s how it was—and is—with me and Melissa Bank’s 1999 collection of short stories, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. This slim book caught my eye in a bookstore when I was in high school. (These were the days before I read The New Yorker, before I had friends who considered it the norm to blurt out their opinion of a book before I’d read it.) I took it with me on a family vacation to the beach. On one rainy day, I sat outside on the patio and read it cover to cover.
The seven short stories in this collection are all focused around the character of Jane. We first meet her as a 16-year-old girl meeting her older brother’s girlfriend for the first time, then as a twenty-something and thirty-something single girl trying to make her way in the publishing business in New York City and navigating love, sex, and jealousy along the way. When the book first appeared, endless comparisons were made to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones's Diary. I can see why, but Jane is moodier, even more mature than Bridget. And she’s certainly more mysterious.
Reading this book as a high school-er, Jane’s exploits seemed to me to be the epitome of “making it” in New York … glamorous in its career disappointments and failed romances. Now, as a 30-something that has lived that life in New York for nearly the past decade, this book reads a bit differently. I read a bit differently.
But I was delighted to see that all the things that make The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing great are still there. In particular, the recurrent relationship between Jane and a much-older editor, Archie Knox, in two stories, “My Old Man,” and “The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine.” Inevitably, the doomed relationship between Jane and Archie is aligned with the relationship between Jane and her father. In one particularly painful moment, a parking attendant asks Jane, “Hey, tell your dad to pull out,” when it’s Archie behind the wheel.
In an interview with The New York Times, Bank said the stories concerning Archie and Jane’s father, who dies from leukemia, are the most autobiographical. Bank’s father also died from the disease. In real life, Archie was a professor, not an editor. ”For a long time, I treated life like it wasn’t real yet, that I was on standby,” Bank said. ”My father’s death made me realize it all matters.” When Girl’s Guide was published, it went through more than 10 printings, and became a bestseller in the United States, England, and France. I was somewhat dismayed to discover that a film adaptation, Suburban Girl, based on the stories about Archie, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin was made in 2007 and has a dismal 5.5. out of 10 rating on IMDB.
Bank went on to write only one other book after Girl’s Guide. It was a novel, called The Wonder Spot, published in 2006. I haven’t read it, but it was nicely reviewed. (See, I read reviews now. Working in publishing will do this to you.) Though any online aggregator might lump Girl’s Guide into some easy “chick lit” category for the sake of nothing other than categorization, that label does a great injustice to this book, and to any book that features a female coming-of-age story. Bank has more in common with say, John Cheever, than she does with Helen Fielding. What category do we lump John Cheever into? Alcohol-soaked-homoerotic-depressive-white-male-Connecticut writing? No, of course not. It’s just good writing—and so is Girl’s Guide. The only shame about Melissa Bank’s work is that there isn’t more of it.
Re-reading this book as an adult resulted in a surprising revelation for this jaded New Yorker. It’s easy to look back at my first few years in the city as a green girl from the suburbs who had no idea what she’d gotten herself into. Honestly, it’s mostly embarrassing. But Jane’s experience made me reflect on my own. And it made me realize how fun—and how fantastic it all was, and still is.