Review: The False Friend

The False Friend
The False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In February, I read Bee Season for my library discussion group. While it wasn’t a bad read, it wasn’t very memorable.

Which is demonstrated by the fact that in finding this in the catalogue, my thought process went something like, Goldberg, Goldberg, that sounds familiar…but where from?

Didn’t pick up on the connection until I going through the front matter of The False Friend.

Grown up Celia is walking down the street in Chicago when she flashes back to a horrific time in her childhood: the abduction of her best friend/worst enemy Djuna. Suddenly, she pictures the two of them, on that day, walking into the woods—and Djuna disappearing into a hole, not a car. What if she lied?

So Celia goes back home, to confront not just her own memories, but all the girls she knew back then, to confirm what she didn’t do. Tell everyone what had really happened.

After eight years and several books from Goldberg, The False Friend is a stronger novel than Bee Season. There were fewer point of view characters—which is to say, two, and I’m not sure why Huck had his own. Unfortunately, though the strangest premise is used to set up the book (which I like, because if that’s accepted, I don’t have accept it at the end when it doesn’t make sense), Goldberg almost immediately drops into a rundown of Celia’s recent history, rather than the realities of her current life—only to summarize those hours more than a chapter later.

Considering how much of this book is characters reflecting and then maybe discussing events that have been silenced for decades, this is a little problematic, and makes it difficult to really know why this is crucial to Celia now, or even who she is at the beginning and end of the novel.

On the other hand, much of this novel plays to Goldberg’s strengths as an author: the complexity of family relationships, particularly of the stoic type; the mercurial nature of young girls; looking back on the past and trying to make sense of it; coming back to a should-be familiar place and the shock of finding the new. Celia and Djuna’s interpersonal details make sense to me as one never bullied as harshly as Leanne and never popular myself. But Celia’s attempts to reconcile who she thinks herself to be, what she remembers as history, and finding only the vaguest of resemblances to what everyone else is telling her—that rang true.

It’s a similar premise, though much darker, that Marian Keyes’ Rachel’s Holiday, where Rachel confronts her traumas of early childhood to her parent’s benign recollection. Both books use a similar conceit: no one talked about it, so the protagonist hadn’t had anyone to deny the excuses constructed by childish minds looking for reason.

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Review: Rachel’s Holiday

Rachel's Holiday
Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I waffled between five and four stars for all of ten seconds before deciding on five, simply because of my sheer inability to be rational about this novel.

I fell in love with Rachel, and I have no idea why. If I hadn’t picked this up at a library sale when my impulse control was at it’s lowest, I wouldn’t have it at all. There’s literally nothing about this book, from the cover, to the genre, to the jacket copy to make me think I’d enjoy it, or that it was my kind of book. Because it really isn’t.

In fact, my first thought on opening the book on a whim a year after putting it on my shelf (not an uncommon phenomenon) was “oh, nice typeface. Rachel’s story was convincing and compelling, if only because the reader is so well grounded in her mental state—she’s all over the place emotionally and never seems to notice, but you still get a sense of who she really is under all the drugs. And even knowing that she’s in more trouble than she thinks she is, Rachel’s done a thorough job of hiding from herself, so as bad as it is, you’re almost as shocked as she is when confronted.

Even that wouldn’t be enough to give in five stars in my mental rating system, but when Rachel is forced to remember her early childhood, I abruptly found myself in tears. I haven’t connected so strongly to a character in I don’t know how long. And I don’t know why it’s Rachel, either. If I were anyone in this novel, I’d be Margaret, the ‘brownose’* But for Rachel, I spent much of the second half of the novel in tears for her, and was so proud of her recovery. Bizarre, but this unexpected total empathy is exactly why I read, and I haven’t experienced it for a while.

*I’ve never even heard the term before in this context.

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