I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s second novel, The Man of My Dreams. I was a very big fan of her first novel, Prep, the painfully accurate but extremely compelling story of one woman’s four years at a fancy New England prep school. What I loved about Prep was Sittenfeld’s amazing ability to convey all of the awkwardness, anxiety, and insecurity of being a teenager with honesty and accuracy. I admire Sittenfeld’s bravery in writing about unflattering times in her heroine’s life (for surely she must have had those experiences herself at some point – her writing is that accurate). I loved Prep so much that I started slowing down my reading about two-thirds of the way through, only reading a few pages at a time, so that I could prolong the experience.
It was with some trepidation that I picked up The Man of My Dreams — in part because I feared it wouldn’t match Prep, and in part because of the lukewarm reviews it received when it came out. I was pleasantly surprised.
The bad news first: It doesn’t have much of a plot. Not much happens. The chapters basically chronicle different stages in Hannah’s (the main character) love life, from age 14-28. Sittenfeld skips over huge swaths of Hannah’s life, touching down every few years when a new man has entered the picture. As a result, the book is a tad unfulfilling — like seeing every four episodes of a TV drama and missing all the developments in between. Also, Hannah herself isn’t particularly likable. She’s mean-spirited at times, not particularly considerate, and self-absorbed.
The good news: Sittenfeld is an exceptionally good writer. I found myself at times holding my breath as I read certain passages, so strikingly did I identify with whatever she was saying. There is a famous C.S. Lewis quote, "We read to learn that we are not alone" — well, I certainly felt that way reading this book. Even though not that much happened in the book, I didn’t care. I enjoyed reading it, and didn’t want it to end, just like Prep.
My theory is that Sittenfeld, propelled by the meteoric success of Prep, rushed her second book out a little too early. I don’t think her plot was fully developed. But in the end, I didn’t care. I still recommend it.
Here’s what others had to say:
The Washington Post (by Stephen McCauley!):
Producing a follow-up to such a major hit can’t be easy. On one side are die-hard fans and eager editors clamoring for "Prep II," and, on the other, are critics sharpening their knives in anticipation of a sophomore slump. Curtis Sittenfeld has dispatched the second-book obligation with admirable speed — only 16 months — and the result is likely to disappoint both sides just a little. The Man of My Dreams is intelligent and insightful, a leaner and more rapidly paced novel than Prep. Even though it proves to be less powerful and distinctive than her first book, it offers more evidence that Sittenfeld is a clear thinker, a canny observer and a solid, graceful stylist.
[T]he exciting thing about Sittenfeld, aside from her remarkably lucid, incisive prose, is that she has the potential to carve out a new place, based largely on the strength of that prose, for every woman who wants to write (or read) good fiction about growing up and messing up — just the way the boys do — without being issued a stigma and a cutesy cover.
Sittenfeld doesn’t have a strong premise, nor has she engaged with some of the ideas that pepper the narrative. The book feels loose and disconnected, and I never really knew where Hannah–or Sittenfeld–stood on anything that was happening. The structure is a problem as well. The book spans about a decade in Hannah’s life, but the moments that Sittenfeld has chosen to portray don’t connect with one another to paint a larger picture. The result is episodic and half-baked.
Would love to hear comments from others who have read The Man of My Dreams.