Melissa Bank, literary chronicler of love and loss, dies at 61

Melissa Bank, who brought an acerbic sense of humor, a minimalist prose style and a discerning eye for human behavior to her literary explorations of love, loss and family, notably in the best-selling story collection “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” died Aug. 2 at her home in East Hampton, N.Y., on Long Island. She was 61.

The cause was lung cancer, said her brother, Andrew Bank.

A methodical writer who would continually rework her sentences and paragraphs, Ms. Bank labored for nearly two decades over “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” (1999) and “The Wonder Spot” (2005), collections of linked short stories centered on feisty, smart young women looking for love and creative fulfillment. Both books were widely acclaimed, even as some critics dismissed them as “chick lit,” a term that Ms. Bank found “denigrating to both readers and writers.”

“It’s as if to say these are books by chicks, about chicks and for chicks, and what happens to a single woman isn’t of consequence to anyone but herself or other women,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2005.

Most of the seven stories in “The Girls’ Guide” were narrated by Jane Rosenthal, who grows from a smug teenager into a 35-year-old woman loosely resembling her literary creator. Like Ms. Bank, she worked in publishing and then advertising, was getting over breast cancer, had a relationship with a much older man (an impotent, alcoholic book editor for Jane; a professor for Ms. Bank) and was forced to confront her father’s early death.

The character usually had a quip or one-liner at the ready, including when her lover encouraged her to come work for him. “I could bring you up on charges for that,” she replied, explaining that he was guilty of “work harassment in the sexual place.” Other passages suggested her loneliness in a single sentence: “He gave me a kiss on the cheek, as though he always had.”

Released a few years after Helen Fielding’s best-selling novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “The Girls’ Guide” became a publishing phenomenon, selling at auction for $275,000 — “rare for a novice, let alone a book of short stories,” the New York Times observed — and was translated into more than 30 languages. Its title story was optioned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and two other stories were adapted into a 2007 movie, “Suburban Girl,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin.

Book critics admired Ms. Bank’s crystalline prose — Los Angeles Times reviewer Susan Salter Reynolds declared that she “writes like John Cheever, but funnier” — and many fans felt an intimate connection to the author herself, seeing their own lives reflected in Jane’s romantic misadventures. During a book tour for “The Girls’ Guide,” some readers asked Ms. Bank to inscribe the book, “To my best friend.”

“In those cases,” she told the New York Times, “I always write, ‘I feel so close to you right now.’ ”

In a phone interview, her longtime editor Carole DeSanti observed that Ms. Bank displayed “a kind of radical honesty about emotional experience and emotional life,” writing about sex and romance while also examining the way relationships are influenced by family dynamics, work and popular culture. Her choice of subject matter meant that she was often overlooked as a prose stylist, DeSanti added, even as she worked to craft sentences that “read absolutely effortlessly.”

“That’s what makes her different,” she said. “She shaved writing — language — very, very close to emotional experience. And when she did that, when she got it right, people just responded.”

The second of three children, Melissa Susan Bank was born in Boston on Oct. 11, 1960. She grew up in Elkins Park, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb that she described as a place “you were supposed to be having a happy childhood, but you weren’t.”

Her mother, a former schoolteacher with a love of language, kept an unabridged Random House dictionary on an antique high chair, setting it outside the dining room for ease of access. Her father was a neurologist who died of leukemia in his late 50s, after keeping the illness secret for nearly a decade, to the astonishment of Ms. Bank.

“For a long time, I treated life like it wasn’t real yet, that I was on standby. My father’s death made me realize it all matters,” she told the New York Times.

After graduating in 1982 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., she worked in publishing in New York and went back to school, receiving a master’s degree in creative writing from Cornell University in 1988. By then, she had started writing “The Girls’ Guide,” which took her 12 years to finish.

She supported herself by working at the New York advertising agency McCann Erickson, writing copy for Stayfree Maxi pads and Marriott hotels. The job taught her the value of concision, she said. “You’re a Hoover salesman banging on the door. You better have something to say and say it pretty well and in a compelling way.”

When she won a Nelson Algren award for short fiction in 1993, she felt her career was about to take off. But she was diagnosed with breast cancer the next year, and while biking home from a radiation treatment in Manhattan she was hit by a car. The accident left her with persistent post-concussive symptoms; for months, she was unable to read and was missing part of her vocabulary.

“For the first time since my diagnosis I felt blighted and vulnerable,” she recalled in a 2005 essay for The Washington Post. “I felt like death was leaning in for the kiss.”

Ms. Bank recovered, but she told the Guardian in 1999 that even before the accident she suffered from aphasia, experiencing intense migraines and struggling at times to express herself. Once, while giving a reading, she forgot the title of her own book.

She spent five years writing her follow-up, “The Wonder Spot,” which spanned two decades in the life of Sophie Applebaum, with each chapter focusing on a different relationship in her life. New York Times book critic Janet Maslin called it “a better-honed and steadier volume” than her first, although sales lagged in comparison.

“I’m completely obsessed with it, and I’m obsessed with how hardly anyone has heard of it,” Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote in 2020. She added, “In many ways, Bank is as much of a stylist as [Edward] St Aubyn, who also always chooses the perfect word. But whereas he is celebrated, she tends to be dismissed, because he is a serious male writer who writes about child abuse and addiction, and she is a funny female writer who writes about being single in New York. And that’s how that old chestnut goes.”

In addition to her brother, survivors include her partner of 18 years, Todd Dimston; and a sister, Margery Bank.

Ms. Bank was working on another story collection in recent years, in addition to teaching at Stony Brook University and the annual Southampton Writers Conference, not far from the log cabin where she lived and wrote in East Hampton. (She also had a home in Manhattan.)

“She had this weird, horse-whisperer way of getting people to write, just through her manner. It was extremely soothing and very down to earth,” said author Matthew Klam, one of her Stony Brook colleagues. “She was more than happy to tell you about how difficult writing was for her, and somehow it made people drop their guard and come up with new material in class.”

Writing didn’t always come easily, she noted. But there were moments of wonder and exhilaration when words and ideas came together. “There’s this feeling that you get, that you can write a sentence and create something,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2005. “It made me feel better than I ever felt. There was a real chance for me to be more than I’d always been.”

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