I was hesitant to read this book, because the author, Rachel B. Glaser, is intimidatingly young. I don't know how intimidatingly young – not for lack of trying, the internet just wouldn't reveal her exact age to me, but young enough to freak me out since she already has a story in New American Stories as well as a collection and this novel.
However, Paulina and Fran is about one of my consummate favorite topics, female friendship, and the author lives in Northampton, where my best friend lives, so I decided to buy it for my best friend for Christmas and then if I got stressed out while reading it I could remember that I had to do it for gift giving.
I'm glad that I decided to get over my insecurities and read it, because despite (or more likely because of,) the author's young age, the book took place in such a familiar setting (weird person college) that it was comforting, funny, and relatable despite some moments of questionable metaphor and some forays into outlandish plot land.
The book begins in the titular characters junior year of college, but we meet Paulina and Fran and their social galaxy separately before their friendship begins. Paulina is an intense storm of hair and personality, hungry for social status and callous about the worth of her fellow students. Fran is a quiet artist, amiable to her friends and surroundings to the point of becoming too comfortable and trusting. They are set up to be enemies, as Paulina is in an ongoing feud with Fran's best friend, who Paulina calls 'the venus flytrap,' but on a study abroad trip to Norway they gravitate to each other after Paulina decides that the rest of the students are imbeciles.
Of course, I immediately identified with that impulse, because that's how I attached myself to most of my friends. These comparisons to my life in college were frequent throughout the novel, and I'm sure I wouldn't be unique in that – anyone who went to a small liberal arts college with weird hookups and heavy drinkers can appreciate the odd home feel of the novel.
The emotions and sentiments that the characters express characterize not only college but also the dramatic and perilous feelings of coming into your personality while young -
“Paulina studied herself in the mirror, admiring her hair, which hung in elegant auburn curls, but faulting the dress for failing to express her mood."
Descriptions like this one accurately depict this (this being, a few years ago) particular moment of youth – when one is always on display, hungry for every social interaction, trying to expertly mix a cocktail of social life and art.
It's still rare to find a book that takes the social lives of women seriously, that depicts their concerns as real without devolving into self deprecating, male influenced commentary. This book was superb on that front – the thoughts expressed regarding friendship were accurate and biting without apology.
But at the same time, the writer weaves in acknowledgment that this moment of life is a passing phase, and I remembered so accurately that feeling where you're feeling such intense emotions but also totally aware that you are a little bit ridiculous:
“A tidal wave of nostalgia knocked everyone over before anything even happened.”
The occasional ridiculousness of the characters, their words, their emotions, their actions, worked for the majority of the novel – but there were times when they became too absurd or maudlin to be believable, even within the universe of a hipster liberal arts college.
Glaser clearly has the blend we all dream of – an equally artistic and intellectual mind, as evidenced in her descriptions of her characters and their conversations and settings -
“Her nose wasn't simple”
“In a tragic use of alphabetical order...”
The book feels more alive in the descriptions of the characters and their age and setting than it does in it's supposed topic, the friendship of Paulina and Fran. The universe it creates is beguiling and interesting, but the friendship is less so. Paulina and Fran drift in and out of each other's orbits in the months and years after the Norway trip, extending into adulthood across New York City and the Midwest, which is not implausible (though other elements of the tail end of the novel certainly are.) They both retain a mild obsession with each other, but there isn't enough grounding as to why. Perhaps that is only a critique someone whose female friendships take place on the backdrop of Victorian dramas would level, but regardless – the ways the women interact are not the most fascinating aspect of the book.
More fascinating, for me, was the novel as a portrait of a subset of culture, a study on the habits of youth. The descriptions of the ways the characters interacted with the world while in college rang true, time after time -
“Once Paulina endorsed something, she raised it too high in her regard.”
“This party sucks,” Fran said, “everyone is jut making up theories.”
“It's hard to be your age – there's maybe too much freedom, or too much pressure”
“Everywhere Fran went, she inhabited like her bedroom. Her joy, her moping – none of it was hidden.”
“At school she'd seen herself as special, but in the weeks since graduation the world had slowed and now it was clear that everyone was as insignificant as the scrappy backyards one passes on trains.”
But after their graduation, things take a turn for the absurd. Having lived in all the worlds the novel inhabits – college, post college in random cities, post college in New York City, the college aspects rang so much truer than the life in random cities or in New York. Again and again, events took place that were too silly to even take as artistic license.
I'll have to wait till my mom reads this one to hear if it's a worthwhile read for people who didn't go to college in the past 3-6 years. I hope it's artful descriptions withstand it's unrealistic moments for people who weren't experiencing the moment it so accurately portrays.