Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Friend Who Got Away, edited by Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappell

The worst thing about this book is its cover. It's orange. And there's a silhouette of this woman in these short heels - heels so low that you wonder what the point in wearing them is, I mean, if you're going to have uncomfortable feet, why not be as tall as you can be? And she's wearing a businessy skirt and a pony tail. Quite a contradiction.

I whipped out this book on a plane, and the woman sitting next to me, with whom I am aquainted, and who is normally a very polite and well-spoken woman, glanced at the cover and said, "you're reading that?!"

Yes. Yes I am. I've been waiting to read The Friend Who Got Away for quite some time now because, as stated in the introduction,

"The loss of a friendship can be nearly as painful as a bitter divorce or death. And yet it is a strange sort of heartbreak, one that is rarely discussed, even in our tell-all society. Tales of disastrous loves abound, but there is something about a failed friendship that makes those involved guard it like a shameful secret."

Hmm. Yeah. That sounds about right. I can immediately think of two friends that I've lost. One I'm mostly okay with having lost, but the other friend - well it makes shudder to think of how close we were, and how poorly I treated her in the end. The way our friendship sputtered out, and how we half-heartedly tried to reconnect every now and again, but never could even get on the same page, and were always somehow offending each other, sometimes accidentally but sometimes on purpose, that is one of my shameful secrets. I never talk about it, (at least not without tearing up), and try not to even think about it, because it makes me feel like a bad friend, and even worse, a bad person. Friendship has the potential to last forever, and when it doesn't, it can really make us feel horrible.

There are twenty stories in this collection - true stories of lost friendship - and I enjoyed most of them. My favorites are the opening story, Katie Roiphe's "Torch Song," Mary Morris' "The Other Face," and Beverly Gologorsky's "In a Whirlwind." The first is about Katie as a college student, who carelessly sleeps with her friend's crush. Katie didn't even like the boy, and hardly found him attractive. Even today, she can't say why she did it, except to remark, "I was fulfilling some misplaced idea of myself. I was finally someone who took things lightly." The second is about Mary, her life long family friend Lauren, and the perils of borrowing money from a friend. The third touched me mostly because Beverly and Jessica came of age in such a different era - the late sixties and early seventies. They were both involved in various protests and civil rights movements, and fell out during a disagreement over whether men should be able to walk in a march for women's rights. Their friendship was lost over ideological conviction. Damn.

Emily White's "End Days," nearly makes the cut of my top three. It's about a friendship between two sixth graders, a hardcore Christian girl who believes the apocolypse will happen any day now and Emily, whose family doesn't have religion. Doesn't everyone have those cringe-worthy memories where we've made fun of someone who was perfectly nice, even wonderful to us? Some good person with "wacky" beliefs? I certainly have.

My least favorite stories were (surprisingly) Dorothy Allison's, which wasn't just about one friend, but various friends and lovers, and didn't have the type of focus I was looking for in this anthology, though it had some beautiful writing - Patricia Marx's, which was too short and too vague, too much like an outline of a friendship without the characters and details - and, I'm sort of embarassed to say, but Jennifer Gilmore's "The Kindness of Strangers" was very hard for me to read. It's about Jennifer as a twenty-something who has to have her colon removed, and her rancorous and jealous thoughts. I'm sure the story was therapuetic for Gilmore to write, but after reading about how miserable her life was, I was hoping for some sort of redemption. Even a cheesy epilog would have helped. Because each of these stories has such a sad ending (except for Nuar Alsadir, whose "friend" really needed to get lost), and Gilmore's illness was so grueling, I felt like the anthology needed to end on a somewhat happy note.

I wouldn't recommend reading this collection in one sitting. Are collections or anthologies meant to be read in one sitting? I'm not sure, but after reading maybe five or seven stories in a row I started to read each new one with a palpable sense of almost dread - like a mix of sadness and dread, because you know that all of these wonderful friendships will fail. It's gets depressing after a while. But it's also a bit thrilling to so intimately eavesdrop on an aspect of these womens' lives. The topic of lost friends is something that I simply can't talk about with this kind of honesty and objectivity with my friends. And I talk about everything with my friends!

Even though it's far from perfect, and you will certainly get some funny looks if you read it in public, I would recommend The Friend Who Got Away to any woman who's ever lost a friend, and feels guilty. Which is to say, I'd recommend it to every woman.