The last word in Emily Gould's new book is not a word. It's a <3, which is pretty brave, if you think about it. But with her <3, Gould isn't trying to make some point about Our Changing Digital World — instead, she's unselfconsciously representing the way people talk to each other.
In Friendship, 30-something Bev and Amy are best friends who love each other deeply, but are not always as kind to each other as they should be. Amy is a notorious blogger who flamed out early; Bev, a quiet Midwesterner waiting for the right time to "will herself un-invisible."
Like the artist character in Friendship whose specialty is painting kitchen appliances with fastidious care, Gould is an immaculate copyist of a very specific time and place — the New York of absurdly expensive cocktails, the "armpitty intimacy of the subway," men wearing leggings, and specialty blogs with names like "Jewbilation" and "Fartiste."
The question, of course, is whether you'll care about Gould's world if you are not, say, a slightly shabby 23-year-old East Coastish blogger who pays more than she strictly should in rent (for example). And the answer is yes, probably. Friendship is superficially about youngish, self-involved writerly types, but it's really about people who are trying to be good and finding it hard. This is a book about ethics — about the real, unglamorous daily battle that is not being a jerk.
Friendship has that same magical universality-in-specificity that make us care about the local politics of Middlemarch or Clarissa Dalloway's floral arrangements. In tiny brushstrokes, Gould captures the small weirdnesses of being alive, of sitting in an interview and being suddenly and unaccountably struck with a desire to bite through the rim of a teacup.
She can describe a character in just a few details. As she explains the way a peripheral character (one of the belegginged) eats his chicken, she conveys in a few sentences both his fastidiousness and the ruthlessness of his desires: "Jason cut his chicken breast into thin slices, anointed each slice with a smear of arterial red chutney, then used a deft fork-knife combo maneuver to marry it with a bit of salad green from the other side of his plate before slipping it into his mouth. He either chewed noiselessly or swallowed each little perfect bite whole, snake-style." From this, we know who he is: prissy (perfect bites), yet dangerous (the arterial red chutney; the snakelike swallow).
The best part of the novel is Bev and Amy: their fights and pettinesses, sure, but mostly their love. When Bev gets pregnant unexpectedly, Amy says, "It seems improbable that this hasn't happened to us before." Bev replies: "Us? Are you going to start saying 'we're pregnant'? We're not a couple, Amy." But they are, at least in the ways that matter. "We're life partners," says Amy.
Praising Gould for writing a genuine-seeming female friendship is almost insulting, like praising her for knowing how to use page numbers. But in a literary landscape where no one seems to be able to count, Gould has created the kind of friendship that is not shallow, silly or a plot sideline, but private, deep and more real than almost anything else. It's enough to make your <3 sing.