Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review: Not That Kind of Girl: A Memoir by Carlene Bauer

Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer is a memoir of a young woman raised in evangelical churches who decides in high school that she wants to grow up to be a writer and live in New York. Torn between her ambition and her love of God, she struggles to stay true to herself and figure out what she really believes.

I wanted to love this book—and did love parts of it—but mostly I found it hard-going, like reading Sylvia Plath’s journals or Virginia Woolf’s novels. I generally enjoy introspective writing, but I found Bauer maddeningly cryptic at times—more than once I had to reread a passage to try to understand what was actually happening (and rereading didn’t always help). Sometimes, the images Bauer paints are luminous and evocative, as when she describes the boys her sister’s friends dated: “They seemed to me like khaki-clad redwoods with girls curled up like ferns, or foxes, against their sturdy bark. There might be whole forests of them somewhere” (p. 52). However, many of her references sailed over my head (and made me feel woefully unread). For example, she says of a boy she had a crush on: “In the end [he] might be the type who’d leave girls like me up in a barn loft with a suitcase of unwanted Bibles and a bum leg with no way to get down” (p. 57). This was clearly a reference to something, but I had no idea what. (I looked it up—it appears she’s referring to a Flannery O’Connor story, “Good Country People.”) I also found that most of her friends seemed fairly interchangeable, and I had trouble keeping the men straight. (Who was Tom? Did I forget or does she not bother to tell us?) At one point she spends seven pages working up to the moment when she meets a particular man at a party, only to run through their entire relationship in less than two pages. It ends with him saying he will woo her until she marries him; by the next paragraph, he has met someone else who wants to get married immediately. I was left feeling like I was missing something. I was frustrated too that Bauer spent so long talking about and thinking about the fact that she didn’t drink and was a virgin, and then suddenly she’s drinking and having sex, and what made the difference? Her loss of faith, in the end, is nearly as inexplicable to me.

On the other hand, there are passages in Not That Kind of Girl that shine: her crank against normal girls (“To describe someone as a normal girl was our lowest blow” [p. 53]); her identification with Sylvia Plath; the moment when her story with Caroline ends; the revelation she has in her cubicle when God speaks to her through the words of Iris Murdoch. One of my favourite passages is when she describes her childhood experience of libraries (while reflecting on the loneliness she currently feels at not being able to share her love of books with the man she cares about):
“I’d kneel on the carpet to look through the books on bottom shelves, creeping around the aisles, a calm growing inside me as the pile of books on the floor grew taller—a calm like that of church, but better than church, because here I was free to roam and circle back among possibilities, to choose and reject as I like. . . . And then coming out in the sun to my mother in the car, keeping all that I’d thought to myself— . . . was it silly to visit the juvenile section to make sure the books I’d checked out years ago were still there, taking them down off the shelves to feel the grain of the mid-century paper, run my fingers over the grooves of the ink-and-pen illustrations, and sniff them the way you’d sniff a baby’s head when I thought no one was looking? And then back to our house, which had only one bookshelf, filled with study guides to the Bible and the unread biographies I’d given my parents, and up to my bedroom to splay myself out under some author’s spell until dinner.” (pp. 252-253)
That Bauer is a talented writer is undeniable, and I’m curious to see what she writes next, but I can’t say I recommend this book.

Thank you to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.

Not That Kind of Girl is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in July and August. Visit these other blogs for reviews:

Literate Housewife
Capricious ReaderThe Book NestDrey’s LibraryAs Usual, I Need More BookshelvesKnowing the DifferenceBookshipper Life in Pink Sukos Notebook A Fair Substitute for HeavenA Certain Bent Appealmy books. my life.Saras Organized Chaos

Other reviews:

Book ReporterLittle Pink BookReligion DispatchesScathing Reviews, Bitchy People (a positive review, despite the name of the blog)

Interview with the author: More Intelligent Life


  1. memoirs are my favorite genre, and i actually just saw this book at an indie shop while on vacation. i picked it up but wasn't sold on it because of the religious bent. i shy away from anything like that. :) anyway, from your review i'd say it's a good thing i skipped it. there is nothing worse than a writer who drops esoteric lines and allusions.

  2. Sorry you didn't like it! I think you do a good job of stating why you don't like it, and I had to laugh when you said you felt woefully unread! I feel like that a lot, and I wonder how regular readers (and by that I mean, your average person who's only reading, say 2 books a month) would ever catch obscure references like that. If only I could dump all literary references into my brain!

    Thanks for being on this tour!

  3. I know what you mean when books don't really speak to you ... I feel like that a lot. But there are always readers out there who it will probably speak to. Thanks for your honesty.

  4. I'm sorry that this book didn't work out for you. I've seen a few other reviews that critiqued similar things (the interchangable boyfriends come to mind ...), so I don't think you're alone here.

    Regardless, we appreciate you being a part of the tour and sharing your thoughts.

  5. I'm not a fan of introspective writing, so this probably isn't the book for me. Thanks for your review.

  6. Nat, I'm often interested in memoirs with a religious/spiritual bent (as long as they aren't preachy), but this one disappointed me on that level too, as I felt like I didn't really understand her loss of faith.

    Trish, thank you! I also wish I could dump literary references into my brain!

    Jenners, I feel like I'm not having much luck with memoirs these days (first The Happiness Project and now this one). Hopefully, I'll enjoy the next one better. (Maybe I should try Manhood for Amateurs next!)

    Thanks, Heather. It did make me feel a bit better that I wasn't the only one who had issues with this book.

    Kathy, I'd say definitely stay away from this one if you don't like introspective writin

  7. disappointing. Thanks for your honesty and heads up.

  8. Wisteria, perhaps you would enjoy it more than I did? Others did (although many other reviewers on this tour also had issues with the book).