Before this week, I had no idea who Emily Gould was. I’d read her name once or twice before, but I managed to make it 32 years on earth blissfully unaware of the ongoing controversy surrounding Gould’s online persona and writing. All that changed when I happened to read a positive review of Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, on NPR’s website. The reviewer, Annalisa Quinn, describes the book as “superficially about youngish, self-involved writerly types” who live in New York City, but she continues on to say that the novel is really “about ethics — about the real, unglamorous daily battle that is not being a jerk.” I was intrigued; narratives superficially about privileged younger white women from NYC but really about something “deeper” have become a well-established theme in pop culture since at least 1998, when Sex in the City first aired.
Friendship focuses on main character Amy and her sometimes-fraught interactions with her best friend, Bev. Primarily, the plot revolves around Amy and Bev’s relationship as they enter their early 30s and find that their lives are not what they thought they’d be. Both women are struggling to find careers, stable relationships, and a deeper sense of fulfillment in life. When Bev gets accidentally pregnant from a drunken one-night stand, both Amy and Bev must figure out what that means for their lives and their evolving friendship.
After reading Friendship, I sought out more information about Gould herself. It became clear to me that the book is based on many details of Gould’s own life, even though she insists the novel is not autobiographical. Regardless, Gould writes from the world she inhabits, and is successful in capturing life as many people of my generation currently know it: cobbling together a “career” through a mélange of informal internships, side jobs, and part-time gigs; finding the decision to have children perpetually postponed for a more opportune moment; living in hodgepodge webs of intimacy outside a nuclear-family model; and being perpetually dialed in to a virtual world in which rapid-fire information is an amorphous blend of social media, “post-print” journalism, and opinion-as-criticism.
The three central characters in the book—Amy, Bev, and Sally—are each attached to different men at various stages in the story, and where Friendship unexpectedly shines is in its portrayal of male characters and contemporary hetero-patriarchal romance. What unites the women’s lovers, boyfriends, and husbands is that each of them seem somehow removed from the messiness of intimacy. Although the women share their lives with them, it becomes clear that the men have a kind of autonomy seemingly unavailable to the women characters. When it comes down to it, the men pursue their personal and professional desires as their primary priorities and their self-evident right. These men don’t lose sleep over the question of whether they can “have it all,” but the women do. Friendship subtly diagnoses this gender difference, elucidating the ways that women are disadvantaged and constrained because of it.
There are moments in the novel when the narrative and characters transcend their particular time and place—the present, and the same neighborhood (or at least very nearby) where the self-absorbed women of Girls and Frances Ha reside. Which is good, since the narrative’s biggest weaknesses occur when it fails to leave Manhattan/Brooklyn. I was 10 pages into the book, for example, when I had to Google the acronym DUMBO, which stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” For readers who don’t live in New York City, DUMBO signifies nothing relevant; it feels like a showy display of insider knowledge.
Elsewhere, there are moments where Gould has clearly intended to portray her characters as morally flawed, but simply makes them one-dimensional instead. For instance, there’s a scene where Amy, distraught about her career prospects, fortuitously wanders past a church soup kitchen and spontaneously decides to volunteer; her transformation by this experience of a single day’s manual labor (and the exposure to those less fortunate than herself) is a cringe-inducing cliché.
Still, Gould’s observations in Friendship feel interesting enough most of the time, and they’re certainly not unimportant. She has captured something authentic about the experiential fabric of life for youngish, white, privileged, women writers from NYC. The novel’s portrayal of that landscape is far from universal in its scope, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of our attention. As Laurie Penny wrote last week in a column for The New Statesmen, “when men write about their experiences in a political context, it’s never called ‘confessional’ — it’s just ‘literature’, or a ‘memoir’… male political experience is never coded as male—it’s just universal truth.” When women write about ourselves, and our lives, we’re too often regarded as writing only for other women, especially other women like us. Despite its shortcomings, readers who don’t inhabit Gould’s idiosyncratic universe will still be able to appreciate some of Friendship’s insights.
Lisa C. Knisely is a freelance writer, assistant professor, and Editor-in-Chief of Render: Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly.