[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Friend Who Got Away': A Girl's Best Friend

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'The Friend Who Got Away': A Girl's Best Friend


    Women, especially girls, aren't always nice to one another, and
    writers and movie directors have tried to document this pathology as
    if it were a sociological ill to be cured. The catty and bullying few
    were recast as Queen Bees and Mean Girls and Tyra Banks; even the
    feminist Phyllis Chesler published a book called ''Woman's Inhumanity
    to Woman.'' Of course, woman-to-woman cruelty has always existed (we
    all have mothers, don't we?), and it certainly wasn't Margaret Atwood
    who broke the news that women could be sociopathic misogynists (though
    her women may be the freakiest). Still, it's all a little hysterical,
    isn't it?

    So it's a relief to report that ''The Friend Who Got Away,'' an
    anthology in the ''Bitch in the House'' tradition, reveals women to be
    thoughtful and kind, sometimes callous and neglectful, like all
    humans. There are more slow fades than blowups here, and (sorry, guys)
    there's nary a catfight in sight.

    That might not be the best thing for an essay collection. In a book
    about fighting dames, one naturally expects lots of cheating lovers,
    hair pulling or face slapping (or both), friendship necklaces flushed
    down toilets and perhaps a husband or two ensnared at the neighborhood

    ''The Friend Who Got Away'' doesn't serve up such banal treasures, and
    at first, that's disappointing. Instead, we get, out of 20, a handful
    of painful, resonant essays and a handful of painfully boring ones.
    The editors, Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, are themselves serious
    writers, and their endeavor reflects that. Wholesale nastiness is
    sacrificed for the nuances and generally flat rhythms of real life.
    The truth is most friendships do in fact break down slowly. Perhaps
    two friends each start to dislike how the other has changed over time.
    Problems fester, and then the slightest insult or missed meeting
    dissolves the strongest of bonds.

    Admittedly, this complexity makes for richer reading, but why must
    there be so many tame essays? There's one about a 12-year-old confused
    by her friend's Christianity (Offill's humdrum ''End Days''); one
    about a breakup over the women's movement (Beverly Gologorsky's
    predictable ''In a Whirlwind''); one by Katie Roiphe (in which she
    admits she's self-absorbed, yet no wisdom is imparted). Some writers
    don't seem all that troubled they've lost their comrades; others
    weren't really friends with them at all.

    Some essays also fail because of the writers' odd inability to conjure
    up their friends. The editors' premise is that female friendships
    curiously resemble romantic relationships; in that case, the writer
    should describe the friend as passionately as she would a lover.
    What's interesting, always, is why another human being captivates us
    and has the power to wreck us. The heartbreakers should come to life
    more vividly than the vexed narrators, who, especially in the case of
    destroyed friendships, are fundamentally unreliable.

    That's why the clever pairing of Heather Abel and Emily Chenoweth --
    friends who tell different sides of the same story, the death of
    Chenoweth's mother -- provides the book with a much needed core. If
    ''The Friend Who Got Away'' has a common theme, it's that when tragedy
    strikes one friend, the other falls apart. The miseries include a
    child's death (Ann Hood's devastating ''How I Lost Her''), multiple
    miscarriages (Kate Bernheimer's acute study of insensitivity, ''Other
    Women'') and life-altering disease (Jennifer Gilmore's magnificent and
    Atwood-like ''Kindness of Strangers''). Each time, the desertion is
    inexcusable; the more it happens, the more inevitable it seems.

    The Abel and Chenoweth essays succeed because both writers have
    uncanny memories for the tenderest details of teenage emotions, mixed
    with impossibly sharp but sympathetic powers of retrospection. Abel
    explains that early on she learned to ''compete without competing.''
    (She writes, for example: ''Apartheid was mine. Athleticism was not
    mine.'') One thing that she did not have was suffering, and she
    enjoyed taking care of her best friend, whose mother fell ill during
    their freshman year of college. But Chenoweth's subsequent withdrawal
    and transformation baffled Abel, and her essay burns with confusion.
    Chenoweth's essay -- wisely printed after Abel's -- begins not with
    Abel but with, of course, the real tragedy at hand, her mother. ''My
    mother was my first best friend,'' she begins, and it stings. Even
    when Abel was the problem, she was not the problem.

    Friends pride themselves on being able to understand everything about
    their counterparts, but with tragedy, the one friend becomes aware
    that no matter how many tears are shed, she will never know the
    other's pain. Being shut out is almost like being killed off -- for
    both parties. Chenoweth's essay is the only one in the book that
    captures the severity of loss.

    YET sometimes tragedy ruins relationships for an even uglier reason: a
    personal loss makes someone special. Outsiders want to share in its
    totality of emotion, or flee for fear of feeling average in
    comparison. If the friendship already had a tinge of rivalry to it, as
    almost all do, then a friend's sudden tragic glow, as well as her much
    admired recovery and quickly forgiven mistakes, weighs heavily on the
    more ordinary friend.

    The Abel and Chenoweth essays are so obviously winning it's surprising
    this book didn't turn into an anthology of companion essays subtitled
    ''Twenty Women Tell Their Sides of the Story: You Be the Judge.'' The
    results, though, would probably be the same each time: both writers
    would plead their cases, only to reveal that they're sad simply
    because the friendship no longer exists. On the page, at least, the
    end of a friendship is one tragedy two women can share, without the
    tiniest bit of envy.

    Suzy Hansen is an editor at The New York Observer.

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