Carlene Bauer’s debut book, Not That Kind of Girl, details her evangelical upbringing in a small, cloistered town in southern New Jersey. Indoctrinated into her nondenominational faith by well-intentioned parents, Bauer and her younger sister struggle with eventual integration into public school, religious questioning, and general adolescent turmoil. Bauer eventually leaves her small pond for a slightly larger one: a private Catholic college. She majors in English and “communes with the dead,” spending hours poring over Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Simone de Beauvoir. Bauer eventually moves to Brooklyn where she tries to reconcile her belief in God with a hunger for sex, love, and other experiences beyond the conditions of her faith. Bauer passes into her twenties with little to no sexual experience, without any tales of drunken debauchery to share at the local dive bars in which she feels out of place. She yearns for a boyfriend but can’t seem to develop a full-fledged romance; she refers to her suitors as “false starts.”
Bauer is articulate in her religious contemplation, communicating her experiences of doubt and illumination with eloquent and lucid prose. She observes her small town well, recalling the details of youth groups and high school social politics, discerning her own visceral reactions to the reckless behavior of her peers with evocative and arresting perception. Upon hearing stories of drunken escapades by friends at the edges of town, Bauer fears losing control of herself in the typical high school party setting:
The word party, because of how I’d overheard them described and seen them depicted in John Hughes movies, filled me with fear. I was afraid of what people would see if I let myself go wherever my mind and alcohol and drugs would take me. I didn’t want anyone to ever have to step over me while I lay openmouthed like a fish that had been knocked from its bowl onto somebody’s parents’ shag carpet. Or pull my face, mottled with vomit and mulch, out of somebody’s parents’ landscaping after I’d heaved in the bushes. I didn’t ever want anyone who wasn’t related to me to see my body’s secrets spilled out in strangers’ ranch houses when I wasn’t even sure what its secrets were.
The themes of Bauer’s work stand strong: feminism, literature, and religion. A budding feminist in her religious community, she gravitates towards the writings of Sylvia Plath, looking to the late poetess for inspiration as she plans a life for herself in New York City. Her dedication to classic literature is matched only by her love of God, a relationship that is beautifully entwined in Bauer’s introspective narration.
Bauer writes keenly about female friendship, exposing delicate moments in the lives of ambitious young women whose faith eventually dissipates. Each of her female comrades is finely drawn as they travel, give up God, and meet up with Bauer some years later in different settings and with new attitudes. Warned from an early age to steer clear of teen pregnancy, drugs, and hair dye, she unexpectedly becomes close with rebel and chronic smoker Caroline. Bauer describes their polar opposite nature with fondness, writing, “I thought girls as different as we were had to circle each other with suspicion, but she came over and pulled me to her.” She identifies the friendship as a “sisterhood,” explaining humorously that, “we might have recognized men as the oppressor, and raged against them in the abstract, but we could be charmed by individual cases.”
Not That Kind of Girl suffers from a lackluster ending, but Bauer’s bow to convention does not detract from this indubitably well-written memoir, an observant and reflective work in a recent boom of mediocre memoirists. This contemplative meditation on identity and God from an analytical, well-read, and self-professed “good girl” announces a promising Brooklyn-based writer with insights worth reading.
To read more about Carlene Bauer, click here.
Tags: brooklyn, Carlene Bauer, Catholic, catholicism, classic literature, evangelical, faith, feminism, friendship, God, identity, Jesus, Manhattan, Memoir, New Jersey, new york city, religion, spirituality, Sylvia Plath, women's personal writing
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