The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez purports to be the story of a friendship between two women who come of age in the 60’s. In fact, the two women in question are friends for barely more than their first year of college, and though the events of Ann Drayton’s life haunt the narrator’s thoughts and dreams, her actual daily existence is little present in the novel. Instead, this book serves as both an homage to, and an indictment of an era.
The story of the sixties told here is not one often heard in history books or from the reminiscences of those who lived through them. Here are the drugs and free love, of course, but it is not simply marijuana and LSD and groovy be-ins. Making their appearance on these pages are heroin, crystal meth, rape and racism. Woodstock, in this novel, is an event that people never quite get to.
Georgette George, the narrator, moves through the militant activism and the drugged out idealism of the 60’s in a haze of self-obsession so thick, one wonders if she has learned anything at all throughout the course of this memoir-ish novel. Told in a pastiche of styles and a jumpcut of past and present, we learn of George’s bewildered arrival in the hallowed halls of Barnard, escaping from her lower-middle class upstate childhood and abusive mother. Here, she meets Dooley Ann Drayton, a smart and privileged upper-class girl who wishes that she had been “assigned a black roommate.” Ann is compassionate, idealistic, and uncompromising in her beliefs, working tirelessly to create the just world that somehow seemed just within reach in the sixties. She is the “last of her kind” of the title, a person so true to her values that she is willing to go to jail for them, to starve herself, to endure a lifetime of abuse in order to shed her privileged white skin.
And yet Ann is no saint. Her character and motivations are given plenty of space to be complicated, as are George’s own and those of her psychotic sister Solange. These characters are so well situated within their era, that it is clear that they are just as much casualties of 60’s as they are products of it, and the brutal honesty of their stories is immensely refreshing.