Tag Archives: friendship

The Burning Girl

Messud_final_front.indd   In her interview of Claire Messud for the New York Times, Ruth Franklin identified the writer as the “one of the foremost chroniclers of women’s hidden appetites.”  Just as in her slow building tale of shocking exposure in The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud uses her character’s yearning as a focal point,  and turns tedium into introspective terror in The Burning Girl.

This story involves the relationship between two girls – best friends as they are growing up – until they are not.  In the interview Messud mentions her inspiration for her premise, the unraveling of a friendship not long after her family moved from Toronto to Sydney.  “I’m not talking to you,” a close friend told her one day.  “Why?” Messud asked.  “You know why,” the girl replied.

In the novel, the narrator, Julia, notes “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point.”  It happened to me, and I saw it happen to one of my daughters.  Messud told the interviewer she viewed “the ending of a friendship as a universal rite of passage,” and she effectively uses the disconnect between Julia and Cassie in her novel.

More than the estrangement of the two friends is Messud’s handling of their differences that eventually causes them to see each other differently.  “As if I’d been holding an apple and thinking it was a tennis ball…”  As young girls, Julia and Cassie play and have adventures.  By middle school, Julia is clearly destined for a better life.  Her grades are better, she is tapped for the speech team, her parents send her to drama camp in the summer.  Cassie, whose single parent works late hours as a hospice nurse, finds make-up and boyfriends, works summer jobs, and is disinterested in making the grade in school.  When her mother finds a boyfriend who moves into their house, her life changes dramatically.

Their friendship suffers and Cassie finds a new best friend.  Her unhappy home life leads her to look for her real father, only a name to her, declared dead by her mother.  She finds his name on the internet and decides to confront him – another piece from Messud’s real life.  Messud cites a friend who did just that with dire consequences.  When Cassie disappears, Julia knows where to find her when she remembers their old childhood secret haunts, but the discovery is not welcomed.

Just as in the ending of The Woman Upstairs, the ending of The Burning Girl leaves the reader with more to think about than a tidy conclusion.  Julia’s life seems to be on a trajectory for success, but Cassie’s life is in question.  What will happen to her?  Will she continue to want more for her life or be beaten down by circumstances? In her interview, Messud says her work offers space for women to be “appetitive,” to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more…”sometimes…they manage to find ways to get what they want.”

In the interview Messud cites her favorite British fairy tale – “Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep.”  In the story, Elsie saves the day by skipping with a magic rope – as an old woman, she’s still skipping.  Maybe Cassie will have that – maybe we’ll all have that magic – to keep skipping, no matter what bumps come along in life…and for young girls – that burning fire in the belly to want more.

Review:  The Woman Upstairs

Interview with Claire Messud

 

 

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The Lying Game

shopping-1   Ruth Ware is back with another quiet and tense thriller – The Lying Game.  With an eerie Gothic setting, human bones found near a boarding school, and a group of schoolgirls who made lying an art, Ware creates a murder mystery with enough red herrings and sudden reveals to keep the reader wondering about the girls’ secret. In a clever twist of plot, the crime seems to be revealed early in the book, but the wary reader will be justified to hold back judgment.  Everyone is lying after all – even the author.  Not as riveting as Dark Dark Wood or The Woman in Cabin 10, but The Lying Game has Ware’s steady hand as she mystifies and teases; the ending is almost an afterthought as the secrets unravel; a great book to read on a dark and stormy night.

Review of Other Ruth Ware Mysteries:

 

Elena Ferrante

After resisting Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books for so long, I finally read the first – My Brilliant Friend – for an upcoming book club discussion. As with the Hunger Games series, after reading the first book, I skipped to the last, interested more in how the characters lives were resolved than how they got there.

It’s no spoiler to state one of the two women who drives Ferrante’s first book disappears, nor to note the other is writing about their lives; this begins  My Brilliant Friend – before backtracking to their lives as young girls who become best friends in Naples. With a cast of characters who all live in the neighborhood, the first book curiously ends either as a cliffhanger for the next book or as a despondant resolution for women of that era – depending on whether you see the book as a soap opera tale or a feminist cautionary note.

The last book – The Story of the Lost Child – on the shortlist for the 2016 International Man Booker prize, offers more introspection and additional wry skepticism of how intelligent women fare in the world, but it’s ending and that of the series, reawakened my interest in the author’s identity. Not so much who she is but how she could manage to hide who she is so well.

I had agreed with her statement in an earlier interview about a book being received based on its own merit, regardless of the author’s background, training, or education – an anomoly in today’s literature where the author’s credentials often drive the interest in the book. But I was reminded of a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, who said people would come to see him because of his name but would leave after ten minutes if he did not deliver funny lines. Ferrante delivers with her story of a complicated friendship, with her commentary on the effects of politics, social norms, traditions and expectations, and with the flowing language evident despite the translation from Italian.

But why hide? Suddenly, I remembered the conceit in Stockett’s book “The Help.” An incident (contents of the pie) known to be true could never be acknowledged without revealing the embarrassment of the receiver. If fiction follows truth, would the real Lila who had threatened to erase her friend’s hard drive if she ever dared to reveal their lives, ever acknowledge knowing the author? If the author’s identity was revealed, an immediate pursuit of her background would follow, with speculation on others in the book. Authors often say their characters are fictional amalgams of many – but not always.

On the other hand, the solution could be simpler. The real friend is really dead and cannot speak out – or better yet, the story is entirely fiction – a clever vehicle for the author to make statements about the plight of women. I like the last conjecture the best.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…

A Little Life

9780804172707_p0_v1_s192x300   The subject matter kept me away from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – who wants to dwell on self-mutilation and  child molestation? I started reading it one night and had just started to enjoy the camaraderie of the four principal characters when the first incident occurred.  Thankfully, I had no nightmares but the next day I could not wait to start reading again and did not stop until I finished.

New Yorker reviewer John Michaud called it “an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.” You can read his review here for more details on the plot.

Curious about the author, I found several interviews and was surprised to learn Yanagihara has a day job as an editor for Condé Nast Traveler.  In an interview with Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek,Yanagihara reveals the philosophy driving her writing:  “All life is small…Life will end in death and unhappiness, but we do it anyway.”  In an interview with the National Book Award committee (the book was a 2015 finalist), Yanagihara describes her focus in writing the book:

“So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend…  the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing…

The book does focus on friendship but the graphic descriptions of sexual violence make it hard to read.  Added to the trauma is Yanagihara’s mental construct of life – no happy endings here.   In an online interview, she noted, ” I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed, and writing his sections were always the easiest…One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better… that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover.”

I’m hoping to forget most of the story, but a few redeeming phrases about friendship I will remember:

  • “And he understood that friendship was a series of exchange of affections of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”
  • “…the utter comfort…of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was…”

Read the book, if you dare.