The story is archetypal, very nearly mythic: a young woman comes to the city from the hinterlands, absorbs some hard knocks, wrangles with some identity angst, and by pluck and luck lands on her feet. From Joan Didion to Meghan Daum to last year's flavor Sloane Crosley, the narrative retains its basic shape while supporting endless permutations: it's an armature as flexible and resilient as a sonnet. Year after year these books arrive on the shelves, sporting variations of the prim-yet-sexy author photo, the artfully artless cover, their creators relentless and somehow heartbreaking in their poise, their intelligence, their seriousness.
Carlene Bauer's Not That Kind of Girl is of this milieu, and yet transcends it — in the world, but not of it — for two reasons, one anthropological and one aesthetic. The former is by weight of the startling fact that the author, who superficially is just another overeducated publishing drone with a shared flat in Williamsburg and surfeit of male friends with lots of facial hair, is in fact a devout, even tormented, Christian. The second is that Bauer, as was once said of Raymond Chandler, writes like a slumming angel. If you're going to chronicle your inner spiritual turmoil against a backdrop of rooftop Brooklyn beer parties, you'd better have chops. Bauer does: an elegant, jazzy stylist, puckish without being flip, she makes most other memoirists — of either gender — seem shallow and gabby by comparison.
Although being a sexually abstinent practicing Christian in New York City in the 21st century is possibly the most genuine act of rebellion imaginable, Bauer doesn't exploit it as a novelty, or a challenge, or a curiosity; about twenty pages in, whatever lurid preconceptions one might have brought to the book have been dissipated by its author's sturdy good cheer. What is remarkable about Not That Kind of Girl is not that it presents a clever twist on zeitgeist-y nonfiction (the promotional copy, unusually crude even by HarperCollins's low standards, compares it to Sex and the City "with Mr. Big played by 'the man upstairs'") but that it is so clear-eyed about the mysterious yet essential process of self-invention.