The Last of Her Kind
A funny thing happens a few chapters into The Last of Her Kind. The feeling is akin to riding in a car and realizing suddenly that you are in a Rolls-Royce. Nunez’s novel performs so well, with such unobtrusive mastery, that when the true scope of its accomplishment begins to make itself known it is quietly astonishing.
The book’s narrator is a woman from a hardscrabble upstate New York childhood with the unfortunate name of Georgette George. She tells her story from the present, and from the relative comfort of middle age, though the bulk of the action takes place from the late 1960s to the late ’70s. Georgette has managed to get into Barnard, her first foray into a world different from the bleak one in which she was raised. Her roommate is a creature she has never before encountered and is utterly flummoxed by: a very wealthy girl named Ann Drayton, from gentle breeding, who despises her parents and her privileged upbringing. Ann has every intention of changing the world, of lifting the poor out of oppression, of more or less smashing the state. Nunez could have made Ann a caricature of ’60s overprivileged white guilt, but she has instead performed the minor miracle of creating a character who is truly remarkable, even admirable, in her completely uncompromising stance while still giving full weight to the tricky politics of being rich and having a conscience, as expressed through Georgette’s confusion and frustration at Ann’s actions. Ann never once falls back on her considerable wealth, living an ascetic life devoted to the underclass with an intensity that leaves no room for comfort, even within her own soul.
What Nunez has done here is written an intensely personal, gripping novel that also functions as a discussion of class and a loving, regretful indictment of ’60s politics. Georgette is raped on campus; Ann and a fellow well-born radical tell her that, for black men, raping white women is an act of insurrection. Nunez is subtle enough not to comment on the shocking wrongheadedness of this, or of any of the countless examples of these people who have such a burning desire to change the world yet are so deeply ignorant of it. Her writing is rare among woman novelists in that she makes no attempt to ingratiate herself to the reader. It is competent and assured—Nunez knows she’s good; she doesn’t need you to like her. And you don’t, necessarily, any more than you close the book liking Ann or Georgette or anyone else in the story. But the sense of awe and satisfaction you walk away with is worth far, far more.