I'm excited about a lot of the movies premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, and Suburban Girl is near the top of my list. It's based on two of the short stories from Melissa Bank's collection The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which was one of my favorite books when it came out in 1999. It had been a while since I'd read the book, so with the movie looming, I decided to drag my old paperback off the shelf and see if the book still holds up.
And it does. Bank's books (she also wrote The Wonder Spot) are great examples of what I like to call "upscale chick lit" — well-written stories with central female characters who are intelligent, witty and unafraid to speak their minds. In Girls' Guide, the focus is Jane Rosenal, whom we first meet as a 14-year-old realizing, as she watches her brother's relationship with his girlfriend slowly disintegrate, that the quest for true love really sucks.
Jane never stops looking for love, but as she grows older she also starts trying to piece together the other components of a fulfilling life. Those interests intersect fiercely in the two stories on which Suburban Girl is based, so
"My Old Man" and "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine" show Jane at her conflicted and endearing best. She's in her 20s, trying to succeed in publishing, when she meets Archie Knox, a powerful executive at a rival firm. She's drawn to him, but in a matter-of-fact way; there's no hearts-and-flowers romance, just a series of dinner meetings and sudden advances. Not even half his age, she longs to impress him, to be the sharp, brilliant woman he's been looking for. "I stored up stories to tell him," Jane says at one point. "I practiced them in my head." She wants to hold her own with him, but at every turn, he gives her a new challenge — his alcoholism, his playboy past, his unexpected difficulties in bed.
In the second of the stories, "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine," the Archie story dovetails with that of the other important man in Jane's life: her father. After a brief breakup, Jane is back with Archie, much to her family's disappointment, and she's also in the process of choosing to ruin her career rather than please her boss, a sort of Miranda Priestly-lite. Then she finds out her father is dying of leukemia, which snaps everything into perspective — but not in the way you'd imagine. I've reread that story several times now, and there are a few lines that always give me chills.
I'm glad the movie zeroed in on those two stories; they have a coherent arc, and they show off the strongest parts of Jane (called Brett in the movie) as a character. But the other stories in Girls' Guide are also worth a read, including the hilarious final chapter in which Jane decides to abandon her natural sarcasm and try out the dating techniques in a book called How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right. She imagines the authors perched on her shoulder, telling her when to talk and what to say ("Keep him guessing!" "Let him pay!"). In the end, of course, she figures out it's all ridiculous, and she leaves us with a pure, simple revelation that sums up Jane's whole story: "I realize that I can say whatever I want now. And I do."