Book review: Sarah Pekkanen’s ‘These Girls’

May 2, 2012

The biggest stretch of imagination in women’s fiction may not be the happily-ever-afters. It’s the number of novels that present publishing and journalism as viable career choices for recent grads. We need a meet cute set at an Occupy Wall Street rally or a plucky heroine running late for her third part-time job as a waitress at Applebee’s so she can make her college loan payments.

After her first two novels, “The Opposite of Me” and “Skipping a Beat,” Chevy Chase writer Sarah Pekkanen has traded the Beltway for New York in her newest book, “These Girls.” Unfortunately, she hasn’t traded up. Two of her characters work at a fashion magazine run by a middle-aged lech, and despite the importance of Facebook and social media to their jobs, the setting feels very late 1990s.

Cate Sommers has been promoted to features editor. Her roommate, Renee Robinson, an American cousin of Bridget Jones who struggles with her weight and her credit card bill, is vying for beauty editor. Both young women are nursing a crush on Trey Watkins, a star reporter who’s a cross between Jon Krakauer and a Patagonia model.

How big is this crush? When Trey’s sister Abby, who has fled her position as a D.C. area nanny, needs a place to stay, Cate and Renee not only invite her to share their apartment, they buy her flowers and repaint the spare room.

Abby, whose story unfolds in flashbacks, is shattered and guilt-ridden, but she isn’t the only one nursing a dark secret: Cate never graduated from college. She left school after a scandal, and she’s terrified her employers will find out. Renee just discovered she has a half sister, courtesy of her father’s lone one-night stand. She also has discovered the diet pills their former roomie, a model, left in the medicine cabinet.

Pekkanen sets up intriguing plotlines for all three young women, and she includes a couple of well-executed twists near the end. But after carefully planting several land mines for her characters, Pekkanen fails to detonate them. Even ordinary roommate squabbles get airbrushed away. The novel’s lack of conflict makes sections of “These Girls” read as blandly as a feature on “Six Reasons to Moisturize.”

In compensation, Pekkanen offers a conversational writing style and a knack for making readers care about her characters. And “These Girls” gets stronger as it goes along, veering from the chick-lit playbook and ending with a refreshing look at the importance of female friendship. It’s a shame that the last page of the book seems, in many ways, like the beginning of the story.

Zipp regularly reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.

THESE GIRLS

By Sarah Pekkanen

Washington Square. 322 pp. Paperback, $15.

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