“Friendkeeping” is a jolly, largehearted book, an anthology of etiquette more than a memoir, dedicated, as the title suggests, to the care and keeping of friends. Julie Klam makes no claim to being a fancy expert. She has lived her expertise. Her own life is her source of knowledge.
Klam was raised an only child. Wait — make that the only girl in a family where she was shut out by her brothers. She recalls coming home from elementary school, finding the student directory and systematically calling girls for play dates until she found someone — anyone — who would come over: “Childhood friendships were so fraught with obstacles: insecurity, identity issues, peer pressure, fear. Adolescent relationships included all of those things, as well as hormonal surges, acne, and impulse bangs-cutting. By college, I began to have an inkling of who I was and what mattered to me.” She goes on to say that by that time, she was giving away too much of herself, was squashing her negative feelings and would do anything to avoid confrontation.
Meanwhile, she was living her life in a refreshingly ordinary way. She went to good schools and dabbled in freelance journalism. Her best friend at that time, a successful editor, kept giving her assignments and recommending her for good jobs, which she was too timorous to try out for. So Klam worked for an insurance company that she didn’t care about and adroitly avoided opportunity when it came knocking. She hung out at clubs and began a long relationship with dogs, which eventually served her well. (Her 2010 memoir, “You Had Me at Woof,” was a bestseller.)
She wasn’t married until she was 35, with an elaborate wedding that gave her an opportunity to connect with friends she’d known at every stage in her life. Soon after that, she became pregnant, came down with preeclampsia and was consigned to bed rest until her daughter was born prematurely. This was perhaps when she needed friends to step up for her; some of them did, and some didn’t.
The next consuming drama in Klam’s life was learning to be a good mom to her little daughter, Violet, trying to keep her from being a friendless only child, enduring the periodic Saturday afternoon hells that constitute elementary school birthday parties.
And that’s it. That’s chronologically where “Friendkeeping” ends, when Klam is in her mid-40s. And that’s the caveat for this book: It’s charming, nostalgic, informative, but it ends its reflection on friendship in the first half of life. This is a perfect gift for women 45 and younger. Anyone older will recognize that the second half of life is when friendship really becomes necessary: the friend who goes with you to the doctor not for the cancer scare but for cancer itself; the friend who doesn’t just go with you down to the station house when your daughter gets caught stealing lipstick but down to the hospital when she’s crashed into a tree; the friend who comforts you not only when your husband absconds with the family bank account but when he keels over from a brain tumor.
In other words, not enough bad things have happened to Klam for her to require the services of an actual stellar friend. She is still giddy with youth. She valorizes the friends who can make her knees buckle and laugh so hard that she pees on the couch. The darker side of life she ignores, either as an artistic choice or because she’s not familiar with it yet.
The second half of “Friendkeeping” is dedicated to typical friendship problems, such as the pal who goes off the deep end and doesn’t notice it. (Her example here is a woman who became a little too enthusiastic about rescue dogs.) Or how we each must answer the call of duty. (A friend helped her put together a video trailer for one of her dog books.) Or what to do when you dislike a friend’s husband. (Stop asking them to dinner as a couple and meet the woman in question for lunch.)
But, really, Klam is the poet of friendship and youth: “I remembered that feeling from high school, running into my kitchen and not even putting down my book bag, just grabbing the phone and stretching the cord too far and dialing Barbara’s number. Because we had to talk about that really funny thing that happened on the bus, and it couldn’t wait. And then we’d move on to more important things at hand, like what we wanted to happen that day on ‘General Hospital.’ ”
Pretty soon they’d laugh so hard that their knees would buckle and then watch out, couch! And perhaps Klam is right, and our adolescent silliness makes us strong enough to face the inevitable hardships to come.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without
By Julie Klam
Riverhead. 240 pp. $25.95