There’s a saying often espoused by teachers of creative writing: “Write what you know.” The main problem with Emily Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, is not that she writes about what she knows, but that anyone familiar with her background knows all of these things already.
Gould’s main characters, Bev and Amy, both in their early 30s, wish to become writers, though there isn’t one time either writes, unless you count a rushed email at the conclusion. In the beginning, Midwestern Bev rides the temp circuit, serving as a receptionist at “a commercial real estate company” and (sometimes) a French bank, but what she’s really “working on” are “short stories that are sort of…memoiristic.” Amy, an East Coaster and a thinly veiled stand-in for Gould, manages a two-person editorial team at the website Yidster, “the third-most-popular online destination for cultural coverage with a modern Jewish angle.”
Years earlier, Bev and Amy meet as assistants at a publishing house, and their office-related interactions spark a real bond. The friendship between them is, of course, at the center of the work, but Gould may have done better if she omitted the flashback vignettes showing its evolution. How Amy and Bev remained friends in the past—when Amy rose in blogger prominence and Bev moved to Wisconsin with a boyfriend she believed she’d marry—is of little consequence in the present; it distracts, rather, from the current conflict, which is how, with Bev pregnant from a one-night stand and Amy without a job and an apartment, they can stay close.
The other characters—the man who impregnates Bev; Amy’s artist boyfriend, Sam; a couple, Sally and Jason, who may or may not want to adopt a child—are well-defined, at first, but they all soon become indistinguishable, not unlike Bev and Amy. And the dialogue, as a whole, is so uniform that even a gynecologist, a professor, and a dean of “New York City’s third-best private university” talk in such a candid, flippant, and confessional manner that one forgets they’re professionals in their fields, at their places of employment, and not in some Bushwick loft passing around a bottle of red wine.
And getting an abortion is discussed on the same emotional level as what’s for lunch:
“These seem old,” Bev said.
“They’re three years old, yeah.” Sally was smiling, but Amy saw her jaw clench around the words. “Like, almost exactly. Anyway. So, you’re getting an abortion?”
Gould is, and has been, an easy target: Jimmy Kimmel lambasted her on an episode of Larry King Live (he was filling in for the host); when she had a cover story for The New York Times Magazine, many readers felt that she didn’t deserve the honor; and her resignation from Gawker and romantic involvement with Keith Gessen, co-founder of the print magazine n+1, elicited many comments about alleged social climbing. A recent profile in Elle had a headline about Gould, “Gawker’s original oversharer,” hitting her life’s “refresh” button, and while it’s admirable that the writer recognizes potential mistakes she’s made, she can’t possibly think that people will forget her notoriety. Friendship could have been a work that commented on these lost (privileged) souls trying to succeed in the city, but Gould never goes far enough. She shares funny and notable observations about women, aging, blogging, and life in Brooklyn, but that’s all they are: observations. So what if Amy “would sooner keep, like, a box full of my old fingernail clippings than read an old blog post,” or that “central Brooklyn” was “where rich, responsible thirty-three-year-old women went to be issued babies from some sort of giant bin?”
It’s often a mistake to read characters as the author and her friends, and it wouldn’t be bothersome, in Friendship, if Gould had anything critical to reveal. At the end of her “Acknowledgements,” she thanks her cat, Raffles; in the book, Amy’s cat is named Waffles. Gould is likely only paying homage to her deceased pet, but her naming the animal so close to a (formerly) real creature points to a larger fault in the narrative: Friendship may read to many, especially those unfamiliar with New York, as one giant inside joke without a punchline.
It’s also not clear, in the end, if the fates of Bev and Amy are last-ditch efforts to find existential meaning, or if they’re sad alternatives for the artistic lives the two women never lead. They may be pressing “refresh,” too, but, like Gould, they would probably have more interesting things to say if they didn’t simply tap a key—if they, instead, spent the time scanning through all they had done, going through their browser histories and looking at everything they clicked in haste.
Emily Gould’s Friendship is available July 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux; to purchase it, click here.