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August 30, 2009

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Gal pals' tough love

TRUE friendship between women suffers the same ups and downs as their relationships with men, Laurie Winer finds in a new piece of "chick lit."
Despite the enormous popularity of an HBO series and an entire literary genre ostensibly devoted to them, female friendships remain strangely underexplored, unlike the search for true love for which they are regularly thrown aside.
Lucinda Rosenfeld stays focused in her new novel, and it pays off handsomely. The book explores a particularly rich relationship vein - the love of an Everywoman for her more beautiful, more glamorous pal, the kind whose romantic entanglements take up most of the friendship oxygen, who is always late despite having an occasional part-time job, whose intoxicating aura makes you forgive a thousand slights and who, when she remembers to drop you a postcard, spells your last name wrong.
Not that I know anything about it. Wendy Murman is an editor at Barricade, a left-wing magazine that provokes not controversy so much as hair-splitting among the converted, to whom it preaches on subjects of comic predictability.
The office is full of rumpled clothes and bad haircuts; it's an operation at which rollerball pens fall outside the budget limit. Wendy spends as much time e-mailing her friends as editing special issues on the history of police brutality. At home she's trying so hard to get pregnant that she's starting to repulse her husband. Meanwhile, most of her friends are popping them out like muffins.
Life is made livelier by the presence of Daphne, she of the cornflower blue eyes, the marmoreal skin and the gazelle's neck, a woman whose loveliness makes ratty clothes look like pieces from the Marc Jacobs collection.
Daphne is a sweet narcissist, entangled in an affair with an older and, of course, married man. Wendy, as Daphne's B.F., is the first to hear the tales of her adventurous and disastrous life, which Wendy imagines perches her atop the pecking order in their circle of girlfriends.
The women are just past that pleasant carefree period when they were like "actors in the same existential play in which the material world figured if at all as a mere backdrop to their anomie." Their conversations "have turned from William Burroughs's 'Naked Lunch' to kitchen countertops on which to serve lunch ... the merits of granite versus Corian."
Wendy alone seems concerned about the direction of this shift, though she sometimes suspects it's only because she can't afford either the granite or the Corian.
As long as Daphne's love life resembles something out of Hieronymus Bosch, though, Wendy feels at the center of a drama and, at the same time, pleasantly superior. But once Daphne meets an eligible lawyer and appears to get her life together, a life that promises possession of everything Wendy lacks, Wendy loses her footing and is forced to examine some of the friendship's more unholy underpinnings.
Rosenfeld goes beyond the obvious issues of envy and the perils of vicariousness to examine a fascinating by-product of feminine empathy: the very skills that make women so good at intimacy, the reassurances and supportive phrases that girlfriends offer reflexively, help them avoid confrontation and form a surface over everyday wounds.
Small resentments collect until one day, perhaps because of a trivial crime, they explode in a Wagnerian burst of emotion.
Rosenfeld builds a sturdy plot complete with a red herring and a climax that, while convenient to her heroine's redemption, is not resolved in an easy or sentimental way. Like its protagonist - whose idea of relaxation is to get under the covers with the copy of OK! magazine she has lifted from a nail salon, but not the current issue because that would be unethical - the novel errs a bit on the shallow side.
It may not transcend its genre, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable and somewhat rare specimen of chick lit that stays focused on the chicks.


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