The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
(Viking, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-670-88300-X
After hearing the positive buzz about The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and then reading the loosely related collection of stories, I wanted to yell, "The Emperor has no clothes! He's buck naked!" Because frankly, I couldn't understand what the fuss was all about. I've seen numerous comparisons between Jane Rosenal, the heroine of most of the stories, and Bridget Jones (whose diary, by now, has taken on almost mythical proportions), and frankly I just don't understand the connection -- or the accolades this book is collecting.

Jane narrates five of the seven stories in this slim volume. We first meet her at age 14, as she tries to make sense of her older brother's short-term relationship with an older woman. In the next story, 25-year old Jane reluctantly accompanies her boyfriend on a vacation with his ex-girlfriend. Then Jane embarks on a relationship with a man who is almost 30 years her senior. Each of these stories made little, if any impression on me, other than an occasional smile resulting from Jane's moderately entertaining sense of humor.

In "The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Can Imagine" Jane confronts the fact that her beloved father is dying of leukemia. This story is more poignant and powerful than the others. The monumental impact of the death on Jane leads her to an epiphany that in turn helps her make decisions about her personal and professional life. At this point in my reading, I started flagging phrases and paragraphs that moved me, and I understood briefly why the other reviewers were raving.

After several short stories that are unrelated to Jane's life, the book concludes with "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," the story that is the most Bridget-like. Jane, complaining to a friend about the lack of eligible single men, reluctantly takes the friend's advice and buys "How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right," after she meets Robert, a wonderful guy. Although she worries that she won't be able to keep him interested, Jane is repulsed by the book's manipulative instructions such as "Don't be funny! Men like femininity and humor isn't feminine. Don't accept a date less than four days in advance. Keep him guessing! Have short phone conversations and make him long for you!" But she's just insecure enough to use the guidebook's rules to catch Robert. She's also independent enough to argue with the book's authors, Faith and Bonnie, who are very much alive in her imagination. So will the guide help Jane reel in "the man she didn't know she could hope for?" Or is it possible that Robert is interested in Jane's real personality and not the one Faith and Bonnie insist she invent?

This final story is funny and charming, but it deserved more than 50 pages. Maybe I'm just not a short story aficionado, but I needed more time to immerse myself in the plot and found it to be too sketchy to be involving. Jane's debates with the Guide's authors were amusing, but haven't we seen this gimmick a million times before on TV, when the little angel and devil appear over the heroine's shoulders, trying to influence her behavior?

My final analysis of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing? Well, maybe the Emperor is wearing a pair of briefs and some socks. There are many other novels out there that are just as well written and satisfying. Bridget Jones, back in England, has nothing to fear from this American wannabe. Jane Rosenal may be more independent and less desperate than Bridget, but she's not half as entertaining.

--Susan Scribner

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