Exploring bonds, boundaries of friendship

By Jim Higgins/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

As I read Lauren Fox’s new novel, I dogeared the pages with witty lines, or impressively bitter ones, or ones that made me laugh.
Please forgive me, Alfred A. Knopf, for what I’ve done to your book. I hadn’t intended to make origami out of it.
Willa, her narrator, describes her parents’ marriage as “another planet, a harsh, extraterrestrial climate — scalding mornings followed by blue-black evenings so frigid no life could possible be sustained there.”
She takes note of her best friend Jane’s father, Mr. Weston, in the kitchen “wearing an apron, in the style of men who believe that they cook frequently.”
She scalds herself, too: “desperate, hungry, plumbing the depths of my own treacherous psyche and capable of unpleasant surprises.”
Twentysomethings Willa and Jane, artsy, single and underemployed, share a Milwaukee apartment and a friendship, the closest thing she has to a boyfriend, Willa thinks. At an eight-year class reunion, high school best friend Ben pops back into Willa’s life — then her confidante and a “weird little wombat,” now a man as tall as she is, with intense brown eyes. She nudges Jane and Ben into a romance.
This could sound like the pitch for a “Friends” episode or a rom-com script, but Fox is probing deeper. Willa sometimes wants nothing more than to be with Jane and Ben, other times feels trapped by their pairing. They’re generous with her, making room in their orbit for a person they both like.
Learning that Ben pined for her for years works on her. Does she have unfinished business with him? Seeing Jane, who so often seems like a perfect person, stumble in a weak moment gives Willa a secret to keep and something to gnaw on.
Willa relives disastrous moments of growing up under the shadow of her parents’ brutal marriage, contrasting them with memories of visits to Jane’s less-dramatic small-town parents. Her brother Seth has mastered the art of relationship sabotage, too.
I’ve sometimes marveled at the multilayered closeness of the friendships between some women I know, to the point of occasionally wondering why they would even need men around, except for the pesky sex thing. Fox has drawn a sharp portrait of such a female friendship, inscribing both the joys and the needs that maintain its bonds while also illuminating the countervailing forces that could send its partners flying apart.