by Andrew Lapin
(JTA) – Melissa Bank, whose stories of flawed, funny Jewish heroines searching for love and fulfillment won over readers’ hearts around the world, died Tuesday at age 61 of lung cancer.
Bank’s publisher, Penguin, confirmed her death in a statement. “She captivated generations of readers with her warmly piercing takes on relationships, family and adulthood,” the publisher said.
Bank, whom the Los Angeles Times famously dubbed “like John Cheever, only funnier,” published just two books during her career: “The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing,” in 1999, and “The Wonder Spot,” in 2005. But both were bestsellers, and “Girls’ Guide” was a publishing phenomenon, spending months on the New York Times bestseller list. And both centered around single Jewish women finding their way in the world: Jane Rosenal, in “Girls’ Guide,” and Sophie Applebaum, in “Wonder Spot.”
In the snapshots of their lives Bank let readers glimpse through interlinked short stories, Jane and Sophie won over ardent fans by refusing to bend to the rules: both those governing the dating scene and the traditions that indebted them to their mothers and grandmothers. Their comic misadventures often intersected with Jewish life. In “Wonder Spot,” Sophie plays hooky from Hebrew class, considers taking a job with a Jewish newspaper, and contends with a cousin’s bat mitzvah and a sister-in-law’s passive-aggressive attempts to impose kosher rules on her home.
Like her characters, Bank grew up in a middle-class Philadelphia Jewish family and lost her neurosurgeon father at a young age. She worked in copywriting as she pursued her career as an author, taking several years to write and revise each book.
After the publication of her second book, Bank became a faculty writing instructor at Stony Brook University Southampton. She also wrote a screenplay for a planned film adaptation of “Girls’ Guide” that was to have been produced by Frances Ford Coppola, but it has yet to materialize. “Suburban Girl,” a film based on another story from the book, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin, was released in 2007.
Though Bank’s output was small, her effect on the lives of her readers was profound. “‘The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing’ Shaped My Twenties,” a Buzzfeed headline once proclaimed, and Bank’s readers had that kind of intimate connection with her authentic, witty depictions of young adulthood.