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Female Friendship: Debut Novels by Rufi Thorpe and Emily Gould

ISSUE:  Summer 2014

Female friendships are not commonly found at the center of the literary novel. Mrs. Dalloway might be considered the masterpiece of this category, with the relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and her poignant memories and deep affections for her old, spirited friend Sally Seton. Leaping forward about seventy years, Lorrie Moore’s coming-​of-​age novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has evolved into a contemporary classic, an elegy of sorts that recounts a long-​ago friendship between two teenage girls who reside and work in a small town in upstate New York. And more recently, the autobiographical, genre-​bending How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti examines the ongoing questions of identity, artistic ambition, and adulthood within the context of a tight-​knit group of Canadian friends in Toronto. 

In many “female friendship” novels, common themes encompass the life-​defining events of pregnancy, abortion, and birth—​either the actual experience or the want or loss defined by its absence. For example, the narrative of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? pitches forward when Sils becomes pregnant by her boyfriend and Berie, the first-​person narrator, steals money from her cash register at the amusement park, where they both work in order to pay for her best friend’s procedure. At the same time, the beautiful, economical narrative is framed by the older Berie, well into middle age, childless, and in a loveless marriage, making for a perfect-​pitch juxtaposition of losses of youth and adulthood. 

This summer welcomes debut novels by two young, talented writers that place female friendships front and center in their narratives—​The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe and Friendship by Emily Gould. The coming-​of-​age novels both focus on two young women on the cusp of life, reckless and seemingly carefree, yet hurtling into the elusive unknowns of womanhood, who, within due time, somehow align into sturdier versions of their former selves. The similarities end there, as these two novels diverge significantly in style, scope, and narrative distance. 

With the first-​person The Girls from Corona del Mar, Thorpe tells the story of Mia, who grows up in the small suburban town in Southern California with her alcoholic mother, two half brothers (frequently under her charge), and an indifferent stepfather. On the novel’s first page, Thorpe writes: “In the narrow cove of our nineties California neighborhood, there was no girl more perfect than Lorrie Ann Swift, not so much because she was extraordinary, but because she was ordinary in a way that surpassed us… . Most of our parents had wound up in the sleepy ocean hamlet of Corona del Mar through a series of increasingly devastating mistakes.” Given Mia’s family’s unhappy circumstances, life appears a bit brighter for her best friend, Lorrie Ann. Her family attends church every Sunday. They rent movies on Friday nights and watch them together. Her mother is a preschool teacher with a large collection of ceramic gnomes; her father is a pseudo-​successful musician, complete with a dramatic gold loop in one ear. Right away, Mia manufactures a personal identity of negative space in contrast to her friend’s seemingly moral demeanor. “In a way, Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was, just as, I am sure, her personality formed as a result of mine,” Mia explains. “People do that kind of thing. They divvy up qualities, as though reality, in order to be manageable at all, should be sorted, labeled, pinned down… . For me, my friend Lorrie Ann was the good one, and I was the bad one.” 

The first pregnancy and subsequent abortion appears within the first chapter, and Thorpe rarely trains away from this loaded theme of choice and procreation, exploring the issue from multiple experiences and perspectives: Right after graduation, Lorrie Ann becomes pregnant after being accepted to Berkeley and decides to marry her boyfriend and forgo college. The traumatic birth of her child ends with a tragic outcome—​a hysterectomy and a severely handicapped son. Lorrie Ann’s military husband is killed during his second tour of duty. In the meantime, after undergoing an abortion at age fifteen (with Lorrie Ann right by her side), Mia matriculates as a freshman at Yale, attends graduate school at the University of Michigan, and pursues grant-​funded studies in Istanbul. All along, the young women’s friendship morphs and lapses until Mia hardly knows Lorrie Ann when she arrives at her doorstep in Istanbul, barefoot and strung out on heroin. 

Thorpe is a skilled writer, particularly in how she moves around in time, with the agile intertwining of lives of the younger Mia and the older Mia, seamlessly coming together by the last third of the novel when she attempts to salvage her friendship with her longtime friend. The author’s prose embodies a grace and subtle flourish that sustains a good part of this absorbing narrative. For example, when Mia discovers a disturbing secret in her mother’s bedroom as a preteen, Thorpe artfully describes its lasting psychological impact: “This feeling of resigned disappointment, a kind of contained disgust, was present throughout the rest of my life in almost all of my human relationships. Always, people were turning out to be a bit less than they could have been, a bit more what you had uncharitably suspected.”

As Mia marches toward adulthood, she develops an interest in classic languages and later in the ancient text of Sumerian poetry and the Inanna cycle. Similar to the potent use of Greek myths in Jesmyn Ward’s stunning National Book Award–winning novel, Salvage the Bones, this text describes a goddess’s journey to the underworld and her resurrection after a violent death, and offers another layer of dimension and depth to Mia through the lens of her own obsessions, personal interrogations, and intimate connection with her old best friend. 

During their tumultuous visit in Istanbul and yet another pregnancy test (this time, Mia, who is convinced that her scholar boyfriend, Franklin, isn’t interested in children), Mia begins to recognize that she must surrender how she sees and remembers Lorrie Ann. “For me, the past had stitched us together so that parts of me were simply connected to parts of Lorrie Ann. But as I waited with her in the bathroom for the pee to absorb, for the stick to change colors, I felt a snag and then a sudden freedom, as though we had finally ripped free of each other and the past no longer mattered.”

This reader was a little disappointed by the dramatic—​and seemingly convenient—​plot points that surface by the closing pages of the novel. Throughout the narrative, Thorpe provides a thoughtful examination of the enduring and complicated dance of friendship between two women. She offers up complex characters that live life fully—​and at times, self-​destructively—​and how the two play off one another. Taken altogether, The Girls from Corona del Mar explores how Mia remembers and forgets. In the end, the character asks about Lorrie Ann: “ ‘Can anyone know anyone? Do you know me?’ ”

With Emily Gould’s first novel, aptly titled Friendship, the reader is transported into a very different kind of story about two girlfriends, Bev Tunney and Amy Schein, segueing from their twenties into their thirties, who live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. This novel is a closer literary cousin to Heti’s How Should a Person Be? than to Moore’s Frog Hospital, with its narrative lens focused on the same generation as well as the world of technology (read: e-​mails, texts, and the omnipresent internet) playing an integral part of the friends’ communication and mutual appreciation. That said, Gould doesn’t name her main character after herself, but she borrows liberally from her own life as an acerbic blogger for the gossip site Gawker, attracting flocks of fans and detractors during her rise and fall there. The judicious choice of the third-​person voice allows Gould to rotate seamlessly among her intimate constellation of characters and provides effective distance between the author and her protagonist, Amy Schein, the young woman whose life most closely resembles Gould’s own.

Instead of spanning decades, Friendship takes on the tighter scope of a year, with her characters treading the urban streets, the bucolic outpost of Margaretville (not far from Rhinebeck), and Amy’s hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland. Like The Girls from Corona del Mar, the narrative charts the ups and downs of the best friends as they attempt to navigate into the more responsible and ambitious waters of adulthood, with multiple flashbacks of their early days as new friends. When the novel opens, Bev is applying for short-​term work with a temp agency after quitting grad school. One of the questions on the work application is, “ ‘What are your grandest aspirations?’ ” Bev is at a loss for words, because she has no idea what’s next in her life. Amy is also on a rebound: She was publicly fired from her high-​profile blogging post and landed at Yidster, a dreary blog dedicated to modern, urban Jews. “Three years in, she still half imagined her no-​longer-​new job as temporary: she had no desk ornaments, had resisted even the temptation to claim a dedicated coffee mug,” writes Gould from Amy’s perspective. “But on some level she realized that she wasn’t going anywhere, not in this economy.”

Friendship largely takes on a humorous, edgy tone, and as a result, the jealousy and envy that come with the territory of friendship can be somewhat mean-​spirited. From Bev’s perspective, Gould writes near the beginning of the novel: “And besides, she had something that Amy, despite her stable and basically okay-​seeming life, would never get to have again: the potential to make a good first impression on the world. When the time was right, Bev knew, she’d will herself un-​invisible. She just had to figure out exactly how to do it.”

A third character, Sally Katzen, appears abruptly in chapter three, as she anxiously sits in a fertility clinic waiting room. At first, Sally’s presence appears disconnected to Bev and Amy’s world, but quickly this trio becomes entangled: The two young women unexpectedly house-​sit the immaculate home of Sally and her husband in Margaretville while the couple travels overseas to London. After Bev becomes pregnant during a one-​night stand with a smarmy coworker from the temporary workplace, Sally enters into the friends’ orbit on a more permanent basis. At this point in the narrative, the intertwining lives of three women take on somewhat surprising—​and at times, slightly unbelievable—​twists and turns. 

That said, Gould never steers away from the imperfect female friendship at the heart of this novel. The author writes from Bev’s perspective after an early appointment with the gynecologist: “Some words were forming in her mind, but she didn’t quite trust herself to think them, not yet. They had to do with Amy, with the baby, and with all the variables sliding into place at the moment. She felt a sense of nervous, slightly far-​fetched anticipation, as if she’d entered a sweepstakes or made a bet. And she felt coldness around her heart, numbness, a feeling of loss that was more anticipation of loss, really, but it amounted to the same thing.”

Outside of the friendship between Amy and Bev, one of the other satisfying pleasures of Gould’s first novel is spending time with somewhat-​rudderless young characters amid the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Whether a reader lived and worked in the city during the eighties, nineties, or Gould’s new millennium, the author provides a vivid reminder of the thrilling, substandard lifestyle—​the scraping together quarters for the subway, a frequent dinner of cold sesame noodles from the takeout Chinese place, more than one bounced check written to a therapist. There is a sentimental delight in reading Friendship and its roller coaster ride of urban highs and lows. Gould writes when Bev and Amy meet soon after Bev’s one-​night stand: “They took their coffee to the community garden where Bev had cultivated a little patch of cucumbers. She was a junior member of the garden, so her plot was near the back edge, where rats sometimes chewed through the fence and pillaged the growing vegetables, but otherwise it was nice to have a plot there, a five-​by-​five square of tangible life accomplishment that Amy admired.” In the end, Gould draws a vivid and convincing portrait of a friendship—​in all of its human misunderstandings, disappointments, and brokenness.

With both of these new novels, the reader is presented with strong female characters in all of their complexities and imperfections. Mia and Amy love their best friends dearly, but at the same time they resent and envy them at various moments in the novels. It is no small feat to animate and chart the emotional fluctuations and subtle contours of female friendships on the page. It produces a different set of narrative challenges than, say, a writer might be faced with in a more traditional story about a raging war or a failing love affair. 

During recent years, more films (for example, Frances Ha) and television shows (Broad City and Girls) have tackled this universal subject matter head-​on, speaking to the general public’s fascination with female friendships. Perhaps these two novels indicate a new trend in contemporary fiction—​and in the near future, readers may be seeing more and more novels about women and girls and their shared stories together. 

Woolf exquisitely writes in Mrs. Dalloway: “The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up. It was protective, on her side; sprang from a sense of being in league together, a presentiment of something that was bound to part them… .”

Friendship between young women—​it’s a strange and wonderful thing. For this reader, it was a pleasure to read about the complicated experience in this pair of insightful, entertaining novels. Both of these authors, in their own ways, illuminate what it means to grow up together and then sometimes apart. 


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Stephanie · 9 years ago

This is one of the best discussions of the frequently mentioned but rarely respectfully examined cultural theme of female friendship that I've seen recently published. Thank you!


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