By Emily Gould
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Near the end of Emily Gould’s engaging debut novel Friendship, a jaded older woman gives protagonist Amy Schein this advice:
“Honey, I was just like you. I lived my twenties in New York City, thought I’d be a little Joanie Didion, packing my suitcase for reporting jobs with a leotard and a bottle of bourbon and two pairs of nylons or whatever… Do you know what’s glamorous about living in New York City and having no money? After you’re thirty, exactly nothing.”
The passage is perfectly representative of a novel that lives in that place where “shrill, seething ambition” collides with ugly reality; it’s smart and funny, but also wrenchingly accurate. There’s an edge of cruelty in play, a tinge of acidity that runs through what otherwise might seem like another carefree jaunt through the well-trodden precincts of hipster angst.
As most denizens of these parts have probably gathered by now— Friendship having been down an extraordinarily long pre-publication runway, courtesy of FSG and others—Gould’s novel charts the bond between two young women navigating the professional and personal tectonics of late-twenties life in Brooklyn circa 2007. In some ways the book is dangerously underpowered: In lieu of nuanced psychological depth, Schein and her perennial second-fiddle wing-person Bev Tunney are assigned sets of quirks and tics, and the relentlessly slangy, chattery dialogue grows wearisome, although I’m haunted by the suspicion that it is actually hyper-accurate socio-linguistic mimicry. If so, God help us.
Three elements of Gould’s novel, though, power it past its limitations and save it from being simply updated Candace Bushnell. The first is that the plot, after chirping along somewhat predictably for two-hundred-odd pages, suddenly veers off in a direction that struck me as genuinely harrowing and unpredictable. The second is the obvious but somehow still essential fact that this book is proudly and unapologetically about two women who do not end up competing for or otherwise sacrificing their integrity in the pursuit of men. This may seem unremarkable, but such depictions are, somewhat inexplicably, quite rare: A casual and profoundly unscientific survey suggests that the number of books that pass the famous Bechdel test is dismally low. In a perfect world, a book that offers a warm and emotionally honest depiction of a friendship between young women should not need to be cause for celebration. In ours, it is.
The third element of Friendship that I found deeply admirable, even heroic, is the subtle but unmistakable current of bracing feminist anger that thrums just under its otherwise breezy surface. It’s nothing so crude as that the men in the novel are creeps, although several are. It’s that Bev and Amy exist in a world where double standards and cultural and structural biases still reign, a realization which salts the narrative in subtle and unmistakable ways. If such a concept is somehow distasteful to you, then go read a book about the Civil War or something. There will always be plenty of those, even in Brooklyn.