You'll be relieved to know that it's possible to have a nonawkward conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld. In fact, she answers the door of her sunny apartment in downtown Philadelphia with actual aplomb. Sittenfeld has a dramatically curvy nose, dark straight hair and a loud, appealing laugh. Seriocomic misunderstandings are kept to a minimum as we tour the study where she writes her novels; it's airy and messy--she and her boyfriend moved in last August, but there are still boxes on the floor. So far, you would never know that you were visiting the home of the Faulkner of awkwardness.
Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep, was the sleeper hit of 2005. It tells the bittersweet, perfectly observed story about Lee, a quiet Midwestern girl who tries, with decidedly mixed results, to fit in at a breathtakingly preppy Eastern private school. To the surprise of many, not least its publisher and its author, Prep spent nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Now, barely 1 1/2 years later, Sittenfeld, 30, has a new novel, The Man of My Dreams (Random House; 272 pages). If you're wondering how she managed to produce it so rapidly, it turns out she wrote most of Man of My Dreams at the same time as Prep--"There came this point where it was almost like dating two different people," she says. There's certainly a sibling resemblance between the two novels. Sittenfeld's new heroine is a rather strange girl named Hannah: thoughtful, withdrawn, a little out of synch with the world around her. Like Lee, she's mesmerized, and a little paralyzed, by the tiny, glittery hypocrisies and white lies and unspoken truths that make up human interaction.
When the novel begins, Hannah is 14 and bearing silent witness to the demolition of her parents' marriage while cautiously exploring the notion of romance herself. From this vivid little home movie, the book spins forward, light-footed, catching Hannah on a disastrous college road trip, falling for her trampy cousin's boyfriend, having her first kiss at the advanced age of 21. Where Prep was about love and social class, Man of My Dreams is very much a book about love, love, love, but Sittenfeld shows us that there is still something fresh to say about the oldest subject in the world. "Every episode is supposed to be her trying to crack the code of romantic love," Sittenfeld explains, "and skipping the boring parts in between."
Sittenfeld is unusually willing to let her characters come off as less than charming from time to time ("You make yourself miserable, and you make the people around you miserable, too," Hannah's sister spits at her during a canoe trip, and she's not totally wrong). That's a huge risk for an author. "I understand that not everybody likes my characters," she admits affably. "It gets mentioned to me. I just want to be honest about the way people are." It's this daring that separates Sittenfeld's work from the stacks of Day Glo--colored chick-lit novels that clog the aisles of Waldenbooks. Here's another example: she never tells the reader whether Hannah is beautiful. "When a female character feels insecure, and then all the other characters are saying, 'But you're so awesome, you're so funny, you're the best!' you almost know that it's this false insecurity," she says. "I feel like, Why write about insecurity unless it's real insecurity? I want the reader to experience what [Hannah's] experiencing."