The college roommate questionnaire is one of the more loaded pieces of paper that land in incoming freshmen's mailboxes. Not as nausea-inducing as the financial-aid package, but sobering, nonetheless.
Mine asked, among other things, whether I was looking for a new best friend, or hoped to "peacefully coexist" with my roomies. Well, who wouldn't want a best friend? Can't have too many, right?
Sadly, peaceful coexistence sounded pretty good by mid-October, when my roommates (who had grabbed the room's two closets) suggested that I try hanging my things from the ceiling to ease the crowded conditions.
But no one at my college expected their questionnaire to do more than spare them a smoker (and two of my friends drew the short straw on that one, as well).
Certainly, none of us would have had the temerity to request a "girl from a world as different as possible from her own," as does Dooley Ann Drayton. Or, as her roommate, Georgette George, puts it in Sigrid Nunez's excellent fifth novel The Last of Her Kind, "She did not want a roommate who had been raised, as she had been ... to believe you could make this kind of special request and expect it would be granted."
Ann (as she demands to be called) was hoping to be paired with an African-American girl. But at Barnard College in 1968, that was almost as unheard of as co-ed dorms.
Ann, who loathes her parents and their money, and frequently wishes she were black, settles for George, who was raised in poverty by an abusive single mom and isn't sure she's flattered by Ann's description.
Over the next decade, Ann is swept up in the radical counterculture movement, while George seeks stability and approval at a women's fashion magazine, when she's not looking for her younger sister, who ran away while George was at Barnard.
Ann, whose idealism is of the uncompromising and infuriating variety, finally picks a fight with George that ends their friendship.
Then, in 1976, Ann is arrested for shooting a policeman who was threatening her African-American lover.
Reading about her case in the newspapers, George finds herself drawn again to her former friend, feeling that there must be more to the story than the "Socialite Cop-Killer" headlines. She tries to reconnect with Ann, and spends the next decades searching for every crumb of information about her that she can garner.
The novel's title comes from the judge who sentences Ann to 25 years to life, saying, "May you serve as an example to others, and may you be the last of your kind."
In an interview, Ann's lawyer, an African-American, comments, "Everyone can find a reason to hate Ann. To rich, conservative people she's an ingrate, a traitor to her class.... Poor people and minorities, they're all free to despise Ann for being nothing but a spoiled, rich white brat..... Most people aren't willing to believe anyone isn't just as selfish and self-serving as everyone else. She's one of the last of her kind, all right, but not in the way the judge had in mind."
Nunez follows the women's lives over about 30 years - George becomes a mother to two children and takes care of her mentally ill sister; Ann continues her activism in prison, where she is serving a life sentence, still angering as many people as she helps.
Nunez patterns Ann after writer Simone Weil, who, according to her doctors, committed suicide by starvation. (Weil refused to eat more than French citizens under Nazi occupation.)
George calls her "selfless to the point of selfishness" and remarks, "If no one was willing to martyr her, she could martyr herself."
Both George and Ann get generous, vivid characterizations, and Nunez is as unstinting in her detailed rendering of the idealistic '60s and their dark aftermath as she is of the worsening conditions in America's prisons.
George's runaway sister, Solange, does her best to fill in the gaps with her cross-country wanderings with hippies and junkies, and her use of every drug from marijuana to heroin. (George, for that matter, is also happy to sample the wares of the era.)
What keeps the novel from being just a history lesson, though, is Nunez's exploration of the many ways women communicate, and how it's possible to think of a friend every day, and yet not talk to her for years.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.