Lauren Fox's 'Friends' a sharp portrait of female friendship

Feb 19 2012 - 8:35am

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Lauren Fox
Lauren Fox

FRIENDS LIKE US. By Lauren Fox. Knopf. 288 pages. $24.95.

As I read Lauren Fox's new novel, I dog-eared the pages with witty lines, or impressively bitter ones, or ones that made me laugh.

Please forgive me, Alfred A. Knopf, for what I've done to your book. I hadn't intended to make origami out of it.

Willa, her narrator, describes her parents' marriage as "another planet, a harsh, extraterrestrial climate -- scalding mornings followed by blue-black evenings so frigid no life could possible be sustained there."

She takes note of her best friend Jane's father, Mr. Weston, in the kitchen "wearing an apron, in the style of men who believe that they cook frequently."

She scalds herself, too: "desperate, hungry, plumbing the depths of my own treacherous psyche and capable of unpleasant surprises."

Twentysomethings Willa and Jane, artsy, single and underemployed, share a Milwaukee apartment and a friendship, the closest thing she has to a boyfriend, Willa thinks. At an eight-year class reunion, high school best friend Ben pops back into Willa's life -- then her confidante and a "weird little wombat," now a man as tall as she is, with intense brown eyes. She nudges Jane and Ben into a romance.

This could sound like the pitch for a "Friends" episode or a rom-com script, but Fox is probing deeper. Willa sometimes wants nothing more than to be with Jane and Ben, and at other times feels trapped by their pairing. They're generous with her, making room in their orbit for a person they both like.

Learning that Ben pined for her for years works on her. Does she have unfinished business with him? Seeing Jane, who so often seems like a perfect person, stumble in a weak moment gives Willa a secret to keep and something to gnaw on.

Willa relives disastrous moments of growing up under the shadow of her parents' brutal marriage, contrasting them with memories of visits to Jane's less-dramatic small-town parents. Her brother Seth has mastered the art of relationship sabotage, too.

While set in Milwaukee, Fox isn't primarily interested in describing local color, though the Mitchell Park Domes get a suitable shout-out, and a certain old-fashioned basement bowling emporium "colonized by the college-aged residents of its east-side neighborhood" is lovingly rendered. Seeing a threesome the next lane over, two girls and a guy, Willa seems to be winding up for a moment of condescension but is moved to reflect, "We all think we're snowflakes, but we're Tinker Toys, held together by our interchangeable parts."

I've sometimes marveled at the multilayered closeness of the friendships between some women I know, to the point of occasionally wondering why they would even need men around, except for the pesky sex thing.

Fox has drawn a sharp portrait of such a female friendship, inscribing both the joys and the needs that maintain its bonds while also illuminating the countervailing forces that could send its partners flying apart.

-- Jim Higgins

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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