Anticipating the release of Emily Gould’s first novel, Friendship, I was most excited to determine one thing: would it be an Emily Book?
Between her 2008 essay collection, And the Heart Says Whatever, and Friendship, Gould has been at work on developing Emily Books, an ebook store that is also an app, a subscription-based delivery service for ferocious writing, and — as partner Ruth Curry characterized it in n+1 — “a tiny, but serious, competitor to Amazon.” The Toast characterized it more evocatively as “having a personal shopper for reasonably-obscure, fabulous reading.”
I subscribed to Emily Books after keeping an eye on the titles that are added to the store each month. Books like Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory and Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding were already among my favorites. If they were Emily Books, I expected that exploring the other selections would yield new obsessions the likes of which I had not experienced since I started reading.
I was right. Every month, I look forward to having a new title illumined or being reminded of how much another one meant to me. I could not wait to find out what kind of complex, brutal, riveting narrative the curator of such complex, brutal, riveting narratives could hatch.
But the warmth and vulnerability of Friendship knocked me out. It seems contradictory to call the book unsparing as well as sentimental, but Friendship’s exploration of sentimentality, of people hanging on to friends and dreams after they have warped and disintegrated, works up an insidious burn.
Friendship’s titular relationship is between Amy and Bev, who struggled in New York together throughout their twenties. Entering their thirties, the fact that they are both struggling has made one into the site of shame for the other.
Over the course of the book, Amy and Bev end up opening themselves to allowing new experiences to define them. The transition their relationship undergoes is reflective of the kinds that strike at all kinds of intervals — going from middle school to high school, from high school to college, from college to work. All the while, the failure of the one to live up to the ideal of the other stings, and those moments of Amy and Bev disappointing one another are Friendship at its most vivid.
As difficult it is for Bev to recover from the dissolution of a relationship for which she left New York and moved to Madison, WI, the longevity of the wound comes from how she failed Amy, who doubted whether a drastic move was sound and whose concern for her Bev fears she has exploited already by the time she moves into her apartment:
She and Amy cooked meals and watched TV together, and Amy would make a joke, they’d laugh, and Bev would forget for a fraction of a second that she was in pain. In those moments she felt as good as she was capable of feeling. But sometimes Amy retreated into her room and Bev felt more alone and out of place in the world than ever.
The fact that Amy and Bev reflected back to each other the selves they had been working so hard on — as members of the pulverizingly competitive digital and analog publishing industries — adds an extra poignancy: no friendship is safe from these transitions.
Trying to get what she can at a temp agency, Bev is wrecked all the more by Amy complaining that her well-paid content-creator job is pushing her to make ill-conceptualized videos:
“…I am supposed to remind you that you promised yourself you’d never move in with anyone again unless you were — I think what you said was, ‘related by blood or marriage.’”
Amy rolled her eyes. “I said that?” she snorted. “I must have had more money then.”
“You did. It was when you had your old job.”
“Ugh. Which brings me to the second question. Can I really let Yidster make me do something so degrading?”
Now Bev rolled her eyes. “You do realize I’m about to spend my day collating and binding, right? And trying to remember the name of the company where I’m working so I answer the phone correctly? I’m not really in the mood to hear about how you find making Internet-televised chitchat about some Jewish celebrity’s nose job degrading.”
Friendship is a book I would have loved to have had in high school. Even with its jagged edges, the most pointed of which depict those hellish visions of work, or trying to work, all of them are suspended from a through-line of compassion. It is this compassion that makes Friendship resemble, tonally, not a throat-ripping Emily Book selection but a young adult book, the kind one returns to and, a few pages in, makes one feel so fortunate to have come to reading this way.
“And you’re a writer?”
“That’s so cool! So what kind of stuff do you write?”
Temp agency applications.
Gould’s vulnerability is not a performance. Friendship does not demonstrate the redeeming or attractive facets of empathy. Feeling for someone is troublesome, as people never stop changing. But anchoring a book like Friendship in one’s reading life prepares one for that. Gould’s first novel, entirely in its own way, is as brave and searing as any Emily Book.
But it is not an Emily Book: Friendship is the start of another shelf, and I hope Gould inspires other authors — the way Emily Books authors Ellen Willis, Renata Adler, and Meghan Daum inspired Gould — to add to it.
Gould, Emily, Friendship, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2014).
Kari Larsen dwells on the banks of the mighty Susquehanna, where she is writing a book about HBO’s GIRLS. More information about this and other projects can be found at www.cold-rubies.com.