In the New Republic, Alice Robb asks a question inspired by Emily Gould’s new novel, “Friendship”: “Are anxious millennials, lacking the security that might come from steady jobs or relationships, clinging to the childhood ideal of the ‘best friend’ as they postpone adulthood?” It may well be that the idea of best friendship is more important at a moment when other social institutions seem fragile, but it is a bit odd to suggest that Gould is holding up an ideal. “Friendship,” a slim, sometimes piercing novel, is a sharply observed chronicle of the inequality inherent in even the most valued friendships.
Gould’s book focuses on two sets of relationship. The first is between Amy, a blogger at a small Jewish site who defenestrated herself from a Gawker-like outlet, and Bev, who moved from the Midwest to work in publishing but has slid down the economic ladder to temping. The second develops between Bev and Sally, a somewhat older woman who moved out of New York after her marriage to a magazine editor, when Bev and Amy house-sit for Sally and her husband Jason.
In the beginning, Bev courts Amy with an almost romantic fervor. When the two women declare themselves best friends, they lock an uneven dynamic into place. The dramas of Amy’s life come first, but even though Bev’s needs are smaller, her more circumscribed world also means she is more dependent on Amy’s support and approval.
This is true even as irritations develop between the two friends. When Bev, saddled by debt for a graduate program she did not complete, returns to New York after a bad breakup and begins temping, Amy’s casual attitude toward money becomes more obvious: “Once, Bev had noticed a paycheck that sat on Amy’s coffee table for an entire week, unavoidable in Bev’s peripheral vision as they watched TV. Bev had never in her life let a check go undeposited for more than twenty-four hours.”
That economic gulf between Sally and Bev is even larger, and it looms when Bev becomes pregnant and Amy strikes on the idea that Sally, who has had trouble conceiving, could adopt the baby.
But where Amy only has enough financial security to flaunt it in front of Bev, Sally has enough money to actually be helpful without the awkward need to demand repayment. And where what Amy needs from Bev — a constant supply of listening and emotional support — requires that Bev have no problems or dramas of her own, Sally’s needs transform Bev’s biggest problem — an unplanned pregnancy she cannot really afford — into an unexpected asset.
As the novel progresses, Bev and Sally’s friendship progresses because of their willingness both to accept the imbalance between them and because they are flexible enough to recognize that their routes to their dreams might change.
Sally, who once wanted to be an artist, returns to the city not as a conquering bohemian but to a job in a bookstore. In the country, she recognized that “She didn’t miss the sense she had in the city that everyone crowded around her was brimming with shrill, seething ambition.” It is enough for her to be in the city rather than to conquer it.
Bev, who worked in publishing and pursued an MFA for a time, finds herself able to let go of some of her jealousy of Amy’s successes and resentment of her friend’s recklessness when she embraces her pregnancy.
Running into an acquaintance from college who is pregnant but also married and with a professional career, Bev finds herself confessing that she is having a baby because “I hated my life, and I wanted it to change.” When the other woman says she feels the same way, “Suddenly Bev didn’t dislike her anymore. She was starting to see that what Allie had said about motherhood being the same for everyone—though it was still a lie rich people told themselves to feel morally okay—was also partially true.”
Amy crumbles and her friendship with Bev cracks because she turns out to lack that sort of flexibility in her sense of herself and the world. She is obsessed with symbols and trivialities, “her right to be mean on the internet,” “The spells and talismans of marriage—the vows, the rings, the veil,” a former co-worker’s engagement ring that demonstrates that “Someone thought Jackie was worthy of wearing a little rock worth thousands of dollars.”
She recognizes at some point that her fetishes are not the same things as the desirable conditions they represent, wondering “How could a destitute homeless person be in possession of a Comme des Garçons wallet, a pair of Worishofer sandals, a fridge with Moroccan oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes in it—all these accoutrements of bourgeois stability, but none of the actual stability itself?”
But she cannot give up on the idea that there ought to be some justice or clear progression towards adulthood. In a humiliating and perfectly wrought scene, Amy comes to visit Bev in the maternity boutique where she has begun working and asks her pregnant friend for a loan of a few hundred dollars. “That has to have meant something,” she protests of her fall from the Web site where she used to work and the vitriolic reaction her writing used to inspire. “It has to have happened for some reason; there has to have been some payoff for that, and it can’t be that I work in a store!”
After a rupture, Bev and Amy eventually reconcile. Their rapproachment, based in the idea that friends may have an equality of affection but not of circumstances or outcomes, seems less like a refuge from the punishing economic conditions of the present than preparation for them.