Take one look at Curtis Sittenfeld’s book covers—many resplendent with pastel minimalism and curvy, all-lowercase fonts—and readers might imagine a world of tidy conflict and polished, shiny-haired characters. Instead, her novels are anything but.
I first encountered Sittenfeld in arguably her most famous novel, PREP. Expecting a beach read about a girl at an elite boarding school, I was surprised—gleefully so—to unfold a novel full of dark humor and complexity in a world occupied not by crisp white shirts or weekends at the Cape, but by class and racial tensions and the anxieties of sexuality and identity in adolescence. A real bildungsroman for this generation, I devoured it in under two days.
Sittenfeld’s next, lesser-known novel THE MAN OF MY DREAMS entered the fray quietly and with little media attention. And yet the novel is a blend of everything she does best: a self-conscious and analytical protagonist who observes and judges everything in her world—including herself—to a fault, and a narrative that stretches over the course of several years. Together, readers see the honest evolution of a young woman on the brink of great change in her life.
In THE MAN OF MY DREAMS, Sittenfeld exposes us to perhaps her most difficult-to-like character yet, the perpetually stubborn and unhappy Hannah. Raised in a privileged yet unstable household subjected to her father’s tides of anger and emotional bullying, we watch as she navigates young adulthood with a chip on her shoulder. She has an idea about the way her life should be—but reality is just not lining up.
The title, THE MAN OF MY DREAMS, may come off as another cute, chick-lit imagining of a young woman’s fantasies of adult companionship, but rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hannah’s deepest desire and fear: to know and feel what it would be like to love and be loved.
But Hannah—for all her judgment of her family, friends, romantic partners, et al—is actually quite naïve about love and what she thinks she wants in life. She embarks on a series of unsatisfying relationships, continually shadowed by the idea of the person she thinks she should be with. He’s something like Henry, the boyfriend of her gregarious cousin Fig.
Fig is the complete opposite of Hannah and comes to represent everything Hannah wants to be: charming, adventurous, desirable. If only she could get past her own self-imposed restraints, the man of her dreams would naturally be attracted to the woman she wants to be. We watch her lose her innocence as she reckons with the fact that in order to find the happiness she wants, and the man of her dreams, she’ll need to do some self-examination first—and perhaps realize that this dream may not be what she actually wants or needs.
With sharp insights and warm, satisfying prose, THE MAN OF MY DREAMS is a thoughtful, honest look at a young woman grappling with the world she dreamed of and the world as it truly is.
The title THE MAN OF MY DREAMS may come off as another cute, chick-lit imagining of a young woman’s fantasies of adult companionship, but rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hannah’s deepest desire and fear: to know and feel what it would be like to love and be loved.