Book review: Sheila Levine Is Dead And Living In New York by Gail Parent

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Gail Parent’s book was published in 1972, made into a film in 1975, and has just been re-printed – because girls are still living in cities and chasing boys, and because Parent’s writing is still very funny. Before there was Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw – so the promotional material goes – there was Sheila Levine, a Jewish girl living in New York, who’s desperate to get married. It seems surprising that the publishers don’t mention the more zeitgeisty twentysomethings of Girls.

Part of the pleasure of this slim, swift book is that – as with that show – Sheila’s life is kind of crummy: she details with wincing honesty the gap between her dream of being a hip young professional and the reality of lousy overpriced flats, deadbeat jobs, endless dieting, and hopeless blokes.

So disappointing, in fact, is Sheila’s life that the book is written as an extended suicide note. Parent invests her with a pleasingly pessimistic streak and stinging sarcasm. Sheila writes as an underappreciated Voice of a Generation holding forth: “Fun City. Ha! New York is a struggle to survive, to be noticed, to be wanted, to be married. Reprints of these views can be obtained through Manny Levine, who will be happy to Xerox them.”

It’s gleefully entertaining, and Parent’s writing is freshly sexually candid on everything from abortions to periods and their underwear-ruining properties. She also nails false self-presentation (lucky Sheila never had to deal with Facebook). When talking culture at a party: “ ‘It’s so great to have all the concerts and museums and the theatres at your fingertips.’ (I hadn’t seen a painting, heard a note of live music or seen a show since I hit town.)”

While we certainly root for Sheila, Parent doesn’t bother with the the need to make her “likeable”. She’s unabashedly blunt – on her supposed BFF getting a boyfriend: “Dear God, bring me one or take hers away”; on her sister getting married: “worse than mass murder.” In this dismissal of sisterly feeling, and in the attitude to homosexuality (Sheila is “repulsed” at the idea of a lesbian relationship) Sheila Levine is Dead … does feel dated. Similarly with the all-consuming, verging on psychotic, obsession with marriage. Although, to her credit, Parent avoids either punitive bitterness or a pandering romantic happy ending for Sheila … which one suspects might have been forced on it if it was written today.