(New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
One of the great benefits of a close and long lasting friendship is banking on time served. There is no need for polite “how’s the weather” chitchat. When observed by a stranger, close friends should seem like a couple of people who hate each other but are made to remain in close proximity for some inexplicable reason. Cynical people would say this behavior is emblematic of a typical family dynamic. So such are Amy and Bev, the main characters of Emily Gould’s first novel Friendship. The story unfolds in luxurious locales of present day New York City and its posh surrounding areas: apartments with west facing windows, country estates, artisanal coffee shops, and organic snack bars. But amongst these idyllic spots, Gould’s main characters grind out each day, on the verge of being swallowed by mounting debts and failing relationships.
Amy and Bev represent both A and B personality types, respectively. The dominate Amy and the agreeable Bev are a perfect yin and yang match, complementary to one another, but not exactly equal. Their closeness can be jarring at times, particularly when they are being overtly mean and duplicitous, but those are the moments when the true benefits of friendship shine through. Amy and Bev show the absolute worst of themselves to one another, which lends a freeing and redemptive quality to their relationship.
If Friendship were a war book, it would be D-Day plus one. Gould’s characters have established a tenuous beachhead, but gone is the youthful momentum of that first push into their twenties: “’Thirty,” said Amy. ‘So, yeah. Early thirties. Wow, when you put it that way, it sounds old.’” In very specific ways, things didn’t work out as Amy and Bev had hoped. There were serious setbacks in their lives; jobs fell through, and relationships went south. In many ways, Amy and Bev’s attempts to get ahead in life haven’t panned out. However, the two always have each other to fall back on. Bev followed her boyfriend to Wisconsin, and when it didn’t work out, she went back to New York and lived on Amy’s couch while recovering from the heartbreak. When Amy struggled with her love life and job, Bev was there with wisdom and support. But Bev was always a little more hopeless and helpless. For Amy, there could be no better trait for a friend to have: “Amy felt the shittiest imaginable shit. She was used to Bev always giving her the benefit of the doubt, but this was much more benefit than she was used to. She did care about Bev, of course she did….”
The novel has difficult moments, where Amy and Bev are painfully selfish, and sympathy for them is difficult to find. But these moments are quickly followed by sturdy guffaws that make forgiveness come easily. It’s this contrast that makes the tender and jarring moments resonate so deeply with the reader. Gould knows how to structure the peaks and valleys of a dramatic landscape, and the hard hitting confrontational scenes coupled with light and well-crafted humor keep the book sharp from cover to cover. In fact, Gould’s ability to free a joke from a character on the edge of an emotional abyss is astounding. Each example of this verbal prestidigitation is a surprise that is both joyful and guilt-ridden. All Friendship’s best jokes come right on the verge of, or just beyond, despair. It’s the kind of gallows humor that makes things begrudgingly all better again. After putting her friendship with Bev on the line by sleeping with someone she shouldn’t, Amy briefly reflects:
In the moment of waking up, Amy’s first thought was to be grateful that she didn’t believe in Bev’s parents’ punisher God. Her yoga teacher God would not exactly be thrilled by what she’d done either.
Despite the many troubled aspects of Amy and Bev’s friendship there is a sincere, well earned, and unmistakable affection for one another. Still, Gould’s novel is not a blind love letter to BFFs, nor is it cautionary tale. The novel is a lovely and troubled and truthful account of what can happen to a close relationship over time. Through Gould’s work we see that deeply meaningful friendships can be a warm blanket that makes the worst in life seem tolerable, while also being the force that cuts us low. True friendship, for Amy and Bev, means knowing when they are no longer complimenting each other. It is this struggle that makes Friendship, without firing a shot, a great war novel.
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Tim Waldron’s short-story collection World Takes is published by Word Riot Press . His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review, The McNeese Review, The Serving House Book of Infidelity, Sententia, Monkeybicycle, The Atticus Review, Keyhole Magazine, and The Word Riot Reader.