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A Novel

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On Sale: May 16, 2006
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“Being raised in an unstable household makes you understand that the world doesn’t exist to accommodate you, which, in Hannah’s observation, is something a lot of people struggle to understand well into adulthood.”–from The Man of My Dreams

In her acclaimed debut novel, Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld created a touchstone with her pitch-perfect portrayal of adolescence. Her prose is as intensely realistic and compelling as ever in The Man of My Dreams, a disarmingly candid and sympathetic novel about the collision of a young woman’s fantasies of family and love with the challenges and realities of adult life.

Hannah Gavener is fourteen in the summer of 1991. In the magazines she reads, celebrities plan elaborate weddings; in Hannah’s own life, her parents’ marriage is crumbling. And somewhere in between these two extremes–just maybe–lie the answers to love’s most bewildering questions. But over the next decade and a half, as she moves from Philadelphia to Boston to Albuquerque, Hannah finds that the questions become more rather than less complicated: At what point can you no longer blame your adult failures on your messed-up childhood? Is settling for someone who’s not your soul mate an act of maturity or an admission of defeat? And if you move to another state for a guy who might not love you back, are you being plucky–or just pathetic?

None of the relationships in Hannah’s life are without complications. There’s her father, whose stubbornness Hannah realizes she’s unfortunately inherited; her gorgeous cousin, Fig, whose misbehavior alternately intrigues and irritates Hannah; Henry, whom Hannah first falls for in college, while he’s dating Fig; and the boyfriends who love her more or less than she deserves, who adore her or break her heart. By the time she’s in her late twenties, Hannah has finally figured out what she wants most–but she doesn’t yet know whether she’ll find the courage to go after it.

Full of honesty and humor, The Man of My Dreams is an unnervingly insightful and beautifully written examination of the outside forces and personal choices that make us who we are.

From the Hardcover edition.


1 June 1991

Julia roberts is getting married. It’s true: Her dress will be an eight-thousand-dollar custom-made two-piece gown from the Tyler Trafficante West Hollywood salon, and at the reception following the ceremony, she’ll be able to pull off the train and the long part of the skirt to dance. The bridesmaids’ dresses will be sea-foam green, and their shoes (Manolo Blahnik, $425 a pair) will be dyed to match. The bridesmaids themselves will be Julia’s agents (she has two), her makeup artist, and a friend who’s also an actress, though no one has ever heard of her. The cake will be four-tiered, with violets and sea-foam ribbons of icing.

“What I want to know is where’s our invitation?” Elizabeth says. “Did it get lost in the mail?” Elizabeth—Hannah’s aunt—is standing by the bed folding laundry while Hannah sits on the floor, reading aloud from the magazine. “And who’s her fiancé again?”

“Kiefer Sutherland,” Hannah says. “They met on the set of Flatliners.”

“Is he cute?”

“He’s okay.” Actually, he is cute—he has blond stubble and, even better, one blue eye and one green eye—but Hannah is reluctant to reveal her taste; maybe it’s bad.

“Let’s see him,” Elizabeth says, and Hannah holds up the magazine. “Ehh,” Elizabeth says. “He’s adequate.” This makes Hannah think of Darrach. Hannah arrived in Pittsburgh a week ago, while Darrach—he is Elizabeth’s husband, Hannah’s uncle—was on the road. The evening Darrach got home, after Hannah set the table for dinner and prepared the salad, Darrach said, “You must stay with us forever, Hannah.” Also that night, Darrach yelled from the second-floor bathroom, “Elizabeth, this place is a bloody disaster. Hannah will think we’re barn animals.” He proceeded to get on his knees and start scrubbing. Yes, the tub was grimy, but Hannah couldn’t believe it. She has never seen her own father wipe a counter, change a sheet, or take out trash. And here was Darrach on the floor after he’d just returned from seventeen hours of driving. But the thing about Darrach is—he’s ugly. He’s really ugly. His teeth are brownish and angled in all directions, and he has wild eyebrows, long and wiry and as wayward as his teeth, and he has a tiny ponytail. He’s tall and lanky and his accent is nice—he’s from Ireland—but still. If Elizabeth considers Kiefer Sutherland only adequate, what does she think of her own husband?

“You know what let’s do?” Elizabeth says. She is holding up two socks, both white but clearly different lengths. She shrugs, seemingly to herself, then rolls the socks into a ball and tosses them toward the folded pile. “Let’s have a party for Julia. Wedding cake, cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. We’ll toast to her happiness. Sparkling cider for all.”

Hannah watches Elizabeth.

“What?” Elizabeth says. “You don’t like the idea? I know Julia herself won’t show up.”

“Oh,” Hannah says. “Okay.”

When Elizabeth laughs, she opens her mouth so wide that the fillings in her molars are visible. “Hannah,” she says, “I’m not nuts. I realize a celebrity won’t come to my house just because I invited her.”

“I didn’t think that,” Hannah says. “I knew what you meant.” But this is not entirely true; Hannah cannot completely read her aunt. Elizabeth has always been a presence in Hannah’s life— Hannah has a memory of herself at age six, riding in the backseat of Elizabeth’s car as Elizabeth sang “You’re So Vain” quite loudly and enthusiastically along with the radio—but for the most part, Elizabeth has been a distant presence. Though Hannah’s father and Elizabeth are each other’s only siblings, their two families have not gotten together in years. Staying now in Elizabeth’s house, Hannah realizes how little she knows of her aunt. The primary information she has always associated with Elizabeth was acquired so long ago she cannot even remember learning it: that once, soon after Elizabeth became a nurse, a patient left her a great deal of money and Elizabeth squandered it. She spent it on an enormous party, though there was no occasion, not even her birthday. And she’s been struggling to make ends meet ever since. (Hannah has been surprised to find, however, that her aunt orders takeout, usually Chinese, on the nights Darrach is gone, which is at least half the time. They don’t exactly act like they’re struggling to make ends meet.) It didn’t help, financially speaking, that Elizabeth married a truck driver: the Irish hippie, as Hannah’s father calls him. When she was nine, Hannah asked her mother what hippie meant, and her mother said, “It’s someone fond of the counterculture.” When Hannah asked her sister—Allison is three years older—she said, “It means Darrach doesn’t take showers,” which Hannah has observed to be untrue.

“Would we have our party before or after the wedding?” Hannah asks. “She gets married on June fourteenth.” Then, imagining it must appear on the invitations like this, all spelled out in swirly writing, she adds, “Nineteen hundred and ninety-one.”

“Why not on the fourteenth? Darrach can be my date, if he’s here, and Rory can be yours.”

Hannah feels a stab of disappointment. Of course her date will be her eight-year-old retarded cousin. (That’s the final piece in the puzzle of Elizabeth’s financial downfall, according to Hannah’s father: that Rory was born with Down’s. The day of Rory’s birth, her father said to her mother, as he stood in the kitchen after work flipping through mail, “They’ll be supporting that child all the way to their graves.”) But what did Hannah think Elizabeth was going to say? Your date will be the sixteen-year-old son of one of my coworkers. He is very handsome, and he’ll like you immediately. Sure, Hannah expected that. She always thinks a boy for her to love will fall from the sky.

“I wish I could find my wedding dress for you to wear at our party,” Elizabeth says. “I wouldn’t be able to fit my big toe in it at this point, but you’d look real cute. Lord only knows what I did with it, though.”

How can Elizabeth not know where her wedding dress is? That’s not like losing a scarf. Back in Philadelphia, Hannah’s mother’s wedding dress is stored in the attic in a long padded box, like a coffin.

“I gotta put the other load in the dryer,” Elizabeth says. “Coming?”

Hannah stands, still holding the magazine. “Kiefer bought her a tattoo,” she says. “It’s a red heart with the Chinese symbol that means ‘strength of heart.’ ”

“In other words,” Elizabeth says, “he said to her, ‘As a sign of my love, you get to be poked repeatedly by a needle with ink in it.’ Do we really trust this guy?” They are on the first floor, cutting through the kitchen to the basement steps. “And do I dare ask where the tattoo is located?”

“It’s on her left shoulder. Darrach doesn’t have any tattoos, does he? Even though that’s, like, a stereotype of truck drivers?” Is this a rude question?

“None he’s told me about,” Elizabeth says. She appears unoffended. “Then again, most truck drivers probably aren’t tofu eaters or yoga fanatics.”

Yesterday Darrach showed Hannah his rig, which he keeps in the driveway; the trailers he uses are owned by the companies he drives for. Darrach’s current route is from here in Pittsburgh, where he picks up axles, to Crowley, Louisiana, where he delivers the axles and picks up sugar, to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he delivers the sugar and picks up women’s slips to bring back to Pittsburgh. The other night Darrach let Rory demonstrate how to turn the front seat around to get in the sleeper cab. Then Darrach pointed out the bunk where he meditates. During this tour, Rory was giddy. “It’s my dad’s,” he told Hannah several times, gesturing widely. Apparently, the rig is one of Rory’s obsessions; the other is his bus driver’s new puppy. Rory has not actually seen the puppy, but discussion is under way about Elizabeth taking Rory this weekend to visit the bus driver’s farm. Watching her cousin in the rig, Hannah wondered if his adoration of his parents would remain pure. Perhaps his Down’s will freeze their love.

After Elizabeth has moved the wet clothes into the dryer, they climb the basement steps. In the living room, Elizabeth flings herself onto the couch, sets her feet on the table, and sighs noisily. “So what’s our plan?” she says. “Darrach and Rory shouldn’t be back from errands for at least an hour. I’m taking suggestions.”

“We could go for a walk,” Hannah says. “I don’t know.” She glances out the living room window, which overlooks the front yard. The truth is that Hannah finds the neighborhood creepy. Where her family lives, outside Philadelphia, the houses are separated by wide lawns, the driveways are long and curved, and the front doors are flanked by Doric columns. Here, there are no front porches, only stoops flecked with mica, and when you sit outside—the last few nights, Hannah and Elizabeth have gone out there while Rory tried to catch fireflies—you can hear the televisions in other houses. The grass is dry, beagles bark into the night, and in the afternoon, pale ten-year-old boys in tank tops pedal their bikes in circles, the way they do on TV in the background when some well-coiffed reporter is standing in front of the crime scene where a seventy-six-year-old woman has been murdered.

“A walk’s not a bad idea,” Elizabeth says, “except it’s so damn hot.”

Then the living room, the whole house actually, is quiet except for the laundry rolling around downstairs in the dryer. Hannah can hear the ping of metal buttons against the sides of the machine.

“Let’s get ice cream,” Elizabeth says. “But don’t bring the magazine.” She grins at Hannah. “I don’t know how much more celebrity happiness I can take.”

Hannah was shipped to Pittsburgh. She was sent away, put on a Greyhound, though Allison got to stay in Philadelphia with their mother because of exams. Hannah thinks she should still be in Philadelphia for the same reason—because of exams. But Hannah is in eighth grade, whereas Allison is a high school junior, which apparently means that her exams matter more. Also, Hannah is viewed by their parents as not just younger but less even-keeled, and therefore potentially inconvenient. So Hannah’s school year isn’t even finished, but she is here with Elizabeth and Darrach indefinitely.
Curtis Sittenfeld|Author Q&A

About Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld - The Man of My Dreams

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of American Wife, The Man of My Dreams and Prep, which was chosen by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2005. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Allure, Glamour, and on public radio’s This American Life. Her books are being translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld

Katie Bacon is a writer and editor based in the Boston area.

Katie Bacon: You commented in an interview about Prep, “I could look at Prep and feel like there are a lot of things wrong with it. But, ideally, I won't make the same mistakes again.” What did you learn from that experience, and what did you set out to do differently with this book?

Curtis Sittenfeld: Well, the timing is funny, because about 75 percent of The Man of My Dreams was finished by the time Prep was published. But I think that The Man of My Dreams is a tighter, leaner book. When I wrote Prep, if in doubt, I included something, and with this book, if in doubt, I didn’t include it. Not every element of the entire world needed to be explained. I don’t know if I’ll ever again write a book as long as Prep, which is about four hundred pages. I’m not one who sees length as a virtue in and of itself. Hannah, in The Man of My Dreams, is definitely a neurotic person, as is Lee, the main character of Prep. But I do think there’s a little bit less dwelling on every single moment on Hannah’s part than on Lee’s. Lee would preemptively analyze a moment and then analyze it while she was experiencing it and then analyze it after it was finished.

I also think that the end of The Man of My Dreams is more unambiguously happy– there’s more of a feeling of the character having changed and progressed.

KB: So you see the end of The Man of My Dreams as unambiguously happy?

CS: It doesn’t necessarily fulfill the most common expectations of what a happy ending is, but I definitely think it’s happy. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it’s more of an achievement to learn to be happy on your own than to snag a man who makes you happy. For Hannah, that realization is very liberating.

KB: How did you come up with the idea for The Man of My Dreams? Had it been brewing in you for a while?

CS: I’d written a little episode in which Hannah hooks up with a guy she works with, and I started thinking, What was Hannah like before this happened, and what was she like after this happened? I thought it would be interesting to delve into different episodes in her life and focus on them in terms of her relationships with the opposite sex or her ideas about the opposite sex. All the episodes are linked by that. I could probably have written a novel only about, say, Hannah and her mother, who is not a major character in the book, but the particular focus I chose was this search for love, which is incredibly mentally consuming for a lot of women, starting when they are teenage girls and then continuing long into adulthood. I think a lot of people expend a lot of energy on it.

KB: One relationship that did seem very important to how the book moved forward was Hannah’s relationship with her sister, Allison. It was interesting how different their lives were but also how they would so easily fall into fights centered around that fact. How important was that relationship as you were conceptualizing the book?

CS: Hannah is often observing the world around her and trying to figure out, What is a healthy relationship between a man and a woman? And what is a healthy relationship that’s not boring? What’s something that I could want that I could realistically get? And about her parents, she thinks, Oh, my God, I would rather never kiss a man than be in their relationship. So Hannah is often analyzing other couples. And in terms of herself and Allison, she feels that they’re somewhat alike, and obviously they have the same parents. If everything had gone right for Hannah she might have been more like her sister, so she pays particularly close attention to her sister’s relationships. And yet, this sister that she admires ultimately marries someone whom Hannah thinks she’s settling for, and then later her sister and her husband have some problems in the relationship. A lot of the book is Hannah’s progression from thinking that any relationship is perfect to recognizing that all of them are flawed, and that that’s not necessarily a horrible thing. It’s just the way adult life is.

KB: At one point the narrator comments about Hannah, “It’s just that college dating, all the rituals and weird outfits and coded things you’re supposed to say–they seem so removed from her particular desired outcome.” Do you have the sense that a lot of people feel exactly as Hannah does, but we just aren’t given access to their thoughts? In other words, is Hannah as different from everyone else as she thinks she is?

CS: The feedback that I got for Prep, and the feedback that I’ve gotten so far for The Man of My Dreams, has been pretty consistent. Some people will say, “I identify so powerfully with this book and I’ve had all these feelings, but I’ve never expressed them or heard them expressed.” And then other people think, Oh, my God, this character is insane. She has such deep social and emotional problems; I don’t know why anyone would want to write a book about her or read about her or get within fifty feet of her.

There are plenty of people who don’t second guess themselves or analyze other people or feel disappointed very often, and then there are people who have those experiences constantly. I had a teacher once who said, “There’s so much fiction about being on the outside because writers feel like outsiders.” His point was that that’s kind of misrepresentative, because most people don’t feel like outsiders–they aren’t the ones who write books.

KB: But we all have stuff that goes on in our heads that we wouldn’t admit to anyone. It seems like the difference here is that your characters are admitting their neuroses and letting them be shown on the page, whereas we don’t normally have that access.

CS: Actually, I feel like a lot of writers accost you with their neuroses. I remember being in grad school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and someone would tell you, in your first conversation, what antidepressant they were on. But I think you’re right that plenty of regular people want to conceal their weaknesses. And people have told me, mainly about Prep, “I was reading this, and at times I felt like I had to turn away.” And I’ll think, Don’t feel embarrassed for me. It’s not as if I’m blindly writing this stuff and have no idea what I’m revealing about myself. It’s manipulated. I’m basically manipulating language. It’s not the way everyone who manipulates language would choose to do it–it’s not everyone’s inclination to write about these neurotic young women, but apparently I enjoy it. Someone should feel embarrassed for me if they think my book is badly written, but they shouldn’t feel embarrassed for me about the emotional content. I don’t feel exposed by my book. In a way, it’s flattering when someone says, “This is so raw.” But I feel, Oh, God, it’s not raw. It’s so worked over and revised to achieve the appearance of rawness.

KB: At one point in the book, while dissecting Hannah’s personality, her cousin Fig tells her that she’s not that funny, though allows that Hannah does have a good sense of humor. But it seems to me that Fig is wrong–that Hannah’s quirky, funny comments about the world are one of her defining characteristics. Does she keep this aspect of herself too buried for others to see?

CS: I think that Fig and Hannah, when they’re together, have their established roles, whether they like it or not. Fig is outrageous and sexy and rude, and Hannah is mousy and grumpy and accommodating. Those are the times in their lives when they’re most that way, because they emphasize the contrasts between them just by being together. But I have to say, I don’t think Hannah is that funny. I think she’s more quirky than outright funny. But that’s one of those things that’s very hard to judge in your own writing. People have told me that they laughed out loud at parts. And Fig’s comment in the book about Hannah’s sense of humor might have been me apologizing for not making Hannah a funnier protagonist–so if you thought she was funny, I’m glad.

I’ve gotten mixed feedback on the question of her likeability. I actually think Hannah is this sweet, quiet person who occasionally says something that is very harsh. But it’s said almost in an innocent way, because of a lack of certain social skills. I think that Lee, in Prep, is a more complicated, negative person.

I have this theory that the likeability question comes up so much more with female characters created by female authors than it does with male characters and male authors. A male character can murder someone, and people don’t ask, Is he likeable? Is he sympathetic? Whereas if a female character doesn’t write a thank-you note, people say she’s sinister! Also, I feel like there are a lot of books I read where, with the female characters, it’s almost as if they’re pleading to be liked. And as a reader, I hate that. So maybe I’ve gone very far in the other direction in terms of not trying to slip in endearing traits.

KB: Hannah presents herself as someone not all that attractive, or at least as someone who has little confidence in her looks. Yet for all the descriptions of other people in the book, we don’t get all that much of a sense of what Hannah looks like. What’s the image of her you have in your head? Is she more attractive than she thinks she is?

CS: The answer to the second question is yes. I think maybe the only time that her looks are described is in the first chapter, when she’s fourteen years old. She’s meant to be perfectly attractive, but she has all these insecurities. She frets about her weight, as so many women do. A copy editor flagged this and asked, “Is she heavy? Is she pretty or not pretty?” And I kind of said, Well, that’s the point! Isn’t that the question that so many people ask themselves: Am I pretty? Am I heavy or not heavy? I feel like there are plenty of books where the main character thinks, My butt is big, and then seven other characters are saying, “No, you’re gorgeous!” I didn’t want that reassurance in there. I feel like that puts the reader almost too much at ease. And it puts Hannah too much at ease. Maybe I wanted to mimic the way people have that question in real life. Either you resolve it at some point, or it remains an ongoing issue for you. I can understand how for a reader, my choice might be frustrating, but it actually is intentional to not give too much away.

KB: When you were working on Prep and The Man of My Dreams, was it confusing at all to be switching back and forth between two neurotic young female protagonists?

CS: No. I did write parts of this before Prep, but I feel like everything that I wrote before was a big mess, and then I straightened it out and became much more focused once Prep was behind me. It would be naïve of me not to recognize that some readers are going to find these characters very similar. And there are lots of writers I like whose protagonists are very similar book to book–John Updike, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore. So that’s something that in and of itself I don’t feel bad about. But to me, of course, Lee and Hannah are incredibly nuanced and distinct. I would never mistake one for the other. Maybe it’s like a photographer who takes picture after picture of very similar subject matter. To him, every little shadow matters, even if it doesn’t to the outside world. But there are definitely similarities. I have said to people, “If you liked Prep, I think you’ll like this. If you didn’t like Prep, I think you won’t like this.”

KB: I know that many reviewers wondered how much in Prep was based on your own life. Has that question had any influence on your work since Prep?

CS: I have to be prepared for that question. It would just be unrealistic at this point for me not to expect it. But to tell you the truth, that’s probably my least favorite part about the promotional process, the part that makes me feel tired. People are asking pretty personal questions. If they ask, “Did you have a boyfriend like the one in the book?,” whether the answer is yes or no, they’re still asking me to reveal certain information about myself. On the other hand, I’ve been a reporter, and while there are certain questions that I’m not crazy about being asked, if I were the reporter, I would definitely ask them. So I don’t fault people for asking, but if I really wanted to expose myself, I would write a memoir, not a novel. It’s not a coincidence that I write novels.

There are plenty of plot differences between The Man of My Dreams and Prep–one set of parents is divorced, one isn’t. One girl has a relationship with a guy starting in high school, and the other doesn’t have a relationship until college. So it’s already impossible for everything to be autobiographical. And I think that the longer I write, the smaller that question will seem. I hope that in the long term, my writing will speak for itself.

From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Hannah comes off as incredibly self-conscious–about her looks, about what she says and how she says it, about the way she interacts with men. How similar is Hannah’s angst to that of other young women? Is she an extreme case? Or are most young women beset by similar insecurities?

2. How do you think the rocky marriage of Hannah’s parents–and her father’s harsh temper–shaped her attitudes toward men? Is her difficult family life at the heart of Hannah’s inability to settle into a relationship, or is there some other cause? Why does her sister, Alli­son, seem to have less trouble finding domestic tranquility?

3. What do you think of Hannah’s relationship with Allison? Is theirs a typical sibling relationship? Is one of them more to blame than the other for the friction that flares up between them?

4. What do the men Hannah dates find appealing about her? How might their perception of her be different from her perception of herself?

5. At one point Hannah considers, “Perhaps it is [she] who has allowed herself to be defined by men: first by worrying about what it meant that she wasn’t dating them, then by making up new worries when she was.” Is Hannah right about herself? How common is it for women in general to let themselves be defined by their relation­ships with men?

6. What do you think of Hannah’s friendship with Henry? Does she build him into something he’s not? Is she too good for him? Is he too good for her? What would have happened if their relationship had turned romantic?

7. At one point Hannah asks herself, “Underneath all the decorum, isn’t most everyone judgmental and disappointed? Or is it only certain people, and can she choose not to be one of them?” What do you think are the answers to Hannah’s questions? How much agency do people have in choosing whether or not to be happy?

8. Most of this book is told in the third person, yet it ends in the first person, with a long letter that Hannah writes to her therapist. Why do you think the author chose to end the book this way?

9. What does the character of Hannah’s therapist bring to the book? How essential is she in helping Hannah figure things out about herself?

10. At one point Hannah comments, “When I think of Henry and Oliver and Mike, I feel as if they are three different models– templates, almost–and I wonder if they are the only three in the world: the man who is with you completely, the man who is with you but not with you, the man who will get as close to you as he can without ever becoming yours.” Are there other templates that Hannah hasn’t encountered yet? Does thinking about men in this abstract way, and dividing them into such strict camps, keep Hannah from experiencing a healthy relationship?

11. Did you identify with Hannah as a character? Or did her way of interacting with the world feel remote from your own experience?

12. Do you think men react differently to this book than women do?

13. Do you think this book has a happy ending? How do you think Hannah changes throughout the book? What has she figured out about men–and about herself–along the way?

14. Who do you think would be the man of Hannah’s dreams? Has she already met him? If not, what might he be like?

  • The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • April 10, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $15.00
  • 9780812975390

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