Female friendships are often complicated and layered. I don’t know a single meaningful female relationship that hasn’t been tested to some degree. It almost feels like a right of passage that every “best friendship” endure at least one fight, flirt with jealousies, and challenge hierarchy in order to asses its foundation. Emily Gould’s debut novel examines the evolution of one such friendship by focusing on Bev Tunney and Amy Schein as they navigate the waters of their early thirties in New York City.
A privileged background, early career success, an enviable relationship, and an expensive New York City loft sets Amy up as the one who has it all, though a nasty habit of burning bridges has finally caught up to her. Now she faces the consequences of her brash behavior, and with depressing career options and a crumbling personal life, she has no one to turn to except Bev. When Bev’s career derails after following a relationship into the Midwest, she moves back to New York City. Forced to live with four-plus roommates and work temp jobs answering phones, her bohemian lifestyle starts to look more pathetic than carefree.
The landscape of the girls’s thirties is littered with old practices: late nights, one-night stands, and a number of career and life indecisions, which, while charming in your twenties, begins to carry some very real-life consequences as these women grow older. Bev becomes pregnant, and as best friends the girls plan to tackle the issue together. The pregnancy drives a wedge between Bev and Amy, highlighting the many ways in which they have always been different. The friendship goes through its toughest trial yet, and forces the girls to acknowledge the pitfalls of the their own choices and the realities of their relationship.
When Amy says, “I just want things to go back to how they were before you got pregnant.” Bev responds: “I want that too, but there’s no point in wanting something impossible. I also feel like this might be my chance to change the direction of my life.” This exchange highlights the central conflict between the two characters. Amy wants things her way and Bev is calling into question the way Amy sees the world. Bev envisions her life with a child and begins to seriously consider the possibility. It is, after all, a clear path toward adulthood. Gould writes of Amy: “She felt that actually it did affect her a lot, but obviously it affected Bev a lot more—so much more that it seemed somewhat monstrous for Amy to even talk about the impact it would have on Amy’s life.” I love the emotional honesty Gould gives Amy, because of course it is monstrous to think that way about your friend’s pregnancy. To me, Amy is the most honest character in the novel and Gould chose wisely not to depict her in a light that is too sympathetic. The emotional register she invokes works because she is snobbish and self-centered, and the value (and frustration) in following her story comes in seeing her face the consequences of this behavior, and ignoring her part in it.
Of course it’s difficult to read Friendship without taking into account the context of its author. In the book, readers learn that Amy worked for an online gossip site whose leave-no-prisoners attitude came back to publicly haunt her. Gould’s exit from gossip-site Gawker is well known, and has resulted in an aftermath of comments on her writing as extreme as death threats and ridiculous name-calling. After being asked about the similarities between Amy’s character and Gould’s professional history, Gould said in an interview with New York Magazine that very little of Friendship is autobiographical. It would be irresponsible as a reviewer to assume I know and understand the nuances of a person’s personal life even when it is has been on public display, but suffice it to say one does begin to wonder about the subtext of Friendship as it relates to Gould’s history. When Gould uses Bev’s decision to leave an expensive MFA program in creative writing, again it feels like a platform to discuss Gould’s own opinions. She writes from the perspective of a professor Bev visits:
I think what we’re doing here is just as disgusting as you think it is—bilking kids who dream of becoming writers out of tends of thousand of dollars, with only the vague promise that they might be able to get jobs as writing instructors at the end of it. I mean, for rich kids it’s one thing. But with someone like you, it’s obscene.
Gould was a contributor to n+1’s anthology MFA vs NYC, a book that examines this same issue. The MFA debate was particularly heated this year, and Gould finds a place for this discussion within the novel, though in Friendship it feels more like an afterthought.
The writing alone is readable and the story, as any woman who has dealt with a complicated friendship will know, rings true. Gould writes well and with a great sense of humor, guiding the story along in a way that feels effortless. One of the cleverest creative choices Gould makes in the book is rendering the father of the baby a non-issue. A great deal of pregnancy-themed novels focus on the role of men in decisions on whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy, and I found it refreshing (and wise for a book that is ultimately about friendship) to leave out that element. Some readers may disagree, but to me it kept the novel tight and focused. For a novel with some divisive content, Friendship comes off as light and easy to read. It offers an adult perspective on female friendship that feels genuine, and I can say honestly I enjoyed my time with Gould’s imperfect cast.
Pub date: July 1
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer