Emily Gould

Emily Gould's "Friendship" follows two women as they embark on careers in New York, weather an unplanned pregnancy and move back home with parents. (Lisa Corson, image distributed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Chick lit, as a genre, was declared dead in a flurry of magazine headlines back in 2012 and 2013. Critics at The Atlantic, Salon, The Economist and other publications pointed out that while the precise definition of chick lit remained unclear, what was clear was that its heyday had passed. But Emily Gould's new novel, "Friendship," suggests that when it comes to literature, death need not have the final word.


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Gould's novel charts the waxing and waning of the friendship between two young women whose lives seem to be going nowhere, fast. Bev and Amy live in New York City, far away from their respective families, where rent is high and jobs are scarce. They've been in and out of romantic relationships, in and out of work, and mostly in a lot of debt. Throughout, the two friends have stood by each other, offering support and empathy. Even if everything else in their lives feels uncertain, their friendship, at least, seems solid. Until, that is, the unexpected happens.

More than an exploration of friendship, this novel is about what happens when the things we take for granted slip away and we are forced to come up with new ways of being. For Amy and Bev, an unplanned pregnancy opens up a flood of questions that the women must wrestle with together, and, ultimately, individually. It also brings on a host of unrelated issues, a confluence of unsavory incidents and bizarre turns, further complicating a difficult situation and threatening to derail their friendship altogether.

Gould does a fine job capturing the women's frustrations, big and small, and the ways in which their friendship serves both as a hindrance and a means to maturing. But even if the writing is far superior to that commonly associated with commercial fiction, the novel's flippant tone — and the fact that it never really probes very far beneath the surface of what the characters are thinking — makes it read like a more highbrow version of chick lit. Call it literary chick lit. Thus, descriptions of an illicit sexual encounter are prettily crafted, but ultimately ring hollow: "Amy found that she was nowhere, that she had sort of ceased to exist except as a related constellation of sensations. Occasionally her consciousness resurfaced to make a mental note of how good she felt, and this meant losing the mindless good feeling for a moment, but it always came back." Reflecting on her deteriorating relationship with her boyfriend, Amy wonders if perhaps, rather than moving toward marriage, as she'd imagined, "they had simply been coasting on inertia." Again, a pretty turn of phrase, but one that feels more affected than authentic

In a 2013 Salon article that set out to distinguish chick lit from literary fiction, Greg Cowles, a New York Times Book Review assigning editor, was quoted saying that in addition to the quality of the writing, the difference between the two is that in commercial fiction "the characters are implausible or predictably just fulfill a role in the service of the story, they don't have surprising ideas or insight." Certainly, this seems to be the case for the two main characters in Gould's novel.

Amy, in particular, feels like a stand-in for every young woman of above-average intelligence who has moved to New York after college with big aspirations and little idea of how to bring them to fruition. As it happens she is also a stand-in for Gould herself, who made headlines when she landed a job as co-editor at Gawker at 25 and later drew heavy criticism for oversharing on the gossip website and on her personal blog.

Everything from her misplaced sense of pride (which makes it difficult for her to hold down any job, since everything seems so, well, beneath her) to the way she talks (clearly trying to affect an air of youthfulness and also intelligence) to the sorts of things that happen to her (like when a married man she fancies shows up in her bedroom) feels utterly predictable. When Amy finally has no choice but to move back in with her parents, her father arranges a meeting with a friend who owns an advertising agency, in hope of helping her find a job.

Sympathetic and also somewhat condescending, the interviewer asks Amy about her aspirations, and Amy begins to talk about what she'd hoped to accomplish in New York City.

The interviewer cuts in: "Do you know what's glamorous about living in New York City and having no money?" she asks Amy. The answer, of course is nothing. "A girl like you needs either a rich husband or a great job, and I don't see a ring on your finger," she says.

The lecture is predictable and trite, but Amy's response is even more so: "I don't think I would even be good at having a rich husband," she says.

That Gould chooses to salvage the women's friendship at the very end of the novel further entrenches this book in the world of genre — rather than literary — fiction. Feel-good endings, like predictable dialogue, make for an easy read, and certainly this is an enjoyable novel. But "Friendship" won't make you reflect more deeply on the themes it purports to tackle: friendship, love and coming of age. And it's this very inability or unwillingness to probe more deeply that sets this novel apart from true literary fiction.

Shoshana Olidort is a book critic whose work has appeared in The New Republic and the Times Literary Supplement.

"Friendship"

By Emily Gould, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pages, $26