January 2011

Eclipse of the Heart

Lonely Hearts Book Club Picks

“True friends stab you in the front.”
—Oscar Wilde (1854­–1900)

Stella and I have been friends since childhood, but ever since my New Year’s Eve party last year, she hasn’t spoken to me. She accused me of seating her in Siberia because her second husband is unemployed. (Note: He’s not just unemployed, he’s perennially unemployed.) In fact, I put her at a table with some of our old high school friends, where I thought she would be happy and her husband would be comfortable. I knew something was up when I glanced over after the salad course and they had left.

She hasn’t returned my calls, and yesterday she emailed suggesting we go to therapy together. I don’t think that’s necessary—plus, a lot of feelings will come up she’s better off not hearing about, such as her weight issues, her money issues and her poor choice in men. This has all been very upsetting. What books can you suggest that explore the ups and downs of friendship?
—Emily, Encino

Dear Emily,
The fact that you sat Stella at a table where “her husband would be comfortable” leads me to believe it was not an “A” table. In this case, there does seem to be more going on than being seated next to the kitchen door, though you’d think a friendship could withstand such a trivial slight. More friendships have broken up over social snubs than anyone would care to admit. Often, that is what sends everyone over the edge. There are many books that examine the complexities of lifelong friendships. Here are a few we recommend...

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

The film was a hit, but it wasn’t true to this classic southern novel, set in Birmingham and spanning six decades from the Depression to the ’80s. The story, which deals with the close-knit white and black commu­nities in a small town called Whistle Stop, focuses on two friendships. One is that of a slightly daft woman in a nursing home and an unhappy housewife who gorges on Milky Ways; the other is between the hard-drinking town tomboy and a beautiful Sunday-school teacher. Neither ends predictably in Flagg’s novel, which has touches of Twain, Harper Lee and even Faulkner. And there’s a bonus in the back: great recipes.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell

“It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that too.” This is the opening to Caldwell’s stunning memoir of her bond with another writer named Caroline Knapp—and we’re not giving away anything. A Pulitzer-winning book critic for the Boston Globe, Caldwell met Knapp at a dog park near her home and describes in powerful, unsentimental prose what it means to have and lose the best friend of your life. Both women were fiercely independent people who loved dogs, nature, literature and sports. They were also both ex-alcoholics and, as Caldwell recounts, could listen to each other “rant” for hours. An eloquent tribute to good, old-fashioned friendship.

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

Picture the high school odd couple. Beautiful Valerie Adler and fatso Addie Downs are members of their own little club until a teenage betrayal tears them apart. Flash-forward 15 years, as Valerie shows up on Addie’s doorstep with blood on her sleeve and a story of a hit-and-run gone bad. Weiner captures perfectly the sweet sadness of a lost friendship and a sympathetic heroine who, despite years of disappointment, rises to the occasion. One could call it an adventure or perhaps a fairy tale, but in Weiner’s world, fiction trumps reality, and the high school loser triumphs after all.

The Atlas of Love, by Laurie Frankel

“When I was six years old, I found a baby in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria.” Thus begins the story of three women and a baby. The girls become friends while attending graduate school in Seattle. One becomes pregnant, and the others move in with her to share the joys (and burdens) of motherhood. Of course, nothing turns out the way any of them anticipates, and the bounds of their bond are strained as the realities of raising a baby become clear. This beautifully written debut novel offers something for everyone—humor, richly drawn characters and a tender exploration of love, friendship and food.

What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal), by Zoë Heller

Frumpy middle-aged teacher Barbara Covett begins a friendship with the beautiful, much younger art teacher Sheba Hart. Sheba, married with two children, confides in Barbara her explosive secret that she is having an affair with her 15-year-old student. As the news becomes public, Sheba becomes isolated from everyone except Barbara, who volunteers to move in and help her through this difficult period. Creepily narrated by Barbara (“We don’t have any secrets, Sheba and I...”), What Was She Thinking? shows obsessive friendship at its finest—and it’s both horrifying and impossible to turn away from.

Roman Fever and Other Stories, by Edith Wharton

This classic short story from 1943 begins on a quiet note and slowly builds to a stunning discovery. Two American women, both widows and former childhood friends, meet by chance on vacation in a Roman villa. Their daughters go touring, while the mothers knit and reminisce. It seems that 25 years ago, one was in love with the other’s fiancé—and therein lies a tale of jealousy, betrayal, secrets, lies and a forged letter. Wharton is right up there with Poe and O. Henry in master­minding a thoroughly satisfying tale with a twist. A Victorian version of “don’t get mad, get even.”