Once more, Holly Bourne has done the nearly impossible: she has made me feel sympathy for the plight of white straight cis women.
Fern is thirty-one at the beginning of Girl Friends (published as When We Were Friends in North America, but I didn’t realize it was being published here simultaneously and pre-ordered a UK copy instead). Her best friend from adolescence, Jessica, suddenly re-enters her life. But Jessica used to be a hot mess, as they say, and still might be, and Fern is ambivalent about rekindling this friendship. After a tumultuous adolescence including self-harm and suicide ideation (trigger warnings for scenes with these in the book), Fern is finally on a better path, writing about mental health for a digital publication and training to become a counsellor. She even has a boyfriend she loves and who will probably propose to her any day now—right? He’s going to propose to her, right? RIGHT?
Seriously, though, I don’t know what kind of magic Bourne puts into her books, but they feel so incredibly relatable despite the fact that I came to my womanhood only recently, have no romantic or sexual interest in men, and generally have eschewed or not had the opportunity to participate in a lot of the conventional activities that white women of the age and class of Bourne’s heroines tend to do. I don’t really think I am the target audience for this book, and yet it has won me over. That’s just how good she is.
I think partly it’s just the ease with which Bourne includes little examples here and there that, I imagine, resonate for much of her target audience. To give myself credit, many of my friends are straight cis women, and so I have a lot of experience empathizing with this group. I’ve been a shoulder many a time. So Bourne has this way of leaning into tropes, playing them straight when it helps establish character and scene (as we see at the beginning with Fern’s encounter with a youthful influencer) and averting or subverting them in the most dramatic moments (as we see at the climax of the story). Some of the best parts of this novel are the quietest, the most unremarkable, depicting everyday stuff that a lot of women will smile and nod along to, whether it’s Fern’s body image issues or her anxiety and insecurity in her relationship with her boyfriend, Ben.
Honestly, Fern is kind of an unlikeable—albeit not unsympathetic—character. For much of the book, I was cringing a little as I read her thoughts (and I had her pegged as an unreliable narrator from the start). I don’t think we are supposed to like Fern unconditionally, because it’s kind of the point: Bourne is illustrating that Fern’s hang-ups over Jessica, over Ben not proposing, over needing to be completely secure and in control of her entire life, are normal but not desirable. Fern is an extremely flawed main character, and she makes a lot of mistakes. But the book never judges her for this. Never encourages us to think less of her. So even though I felt uncomfortable at times as I watched Fern spiral, I knew this was happening for a reason.
I loved the alternating chapters. First, I’m a sucker for how these encourage you to keep reading so that you can get back to the time period you just left. Second, younger Fern is even more fucked up than older Fern in so many ways—but again, she’s also a very normal teenage girl in many ways. There’s one scene in particular where Bourne describes how she’s trying to pose attractively while suntanning near an attractive boy, and it made me think about what must be going through many straight teenage girls’ minds in those moments. The calculation. The emotional devastation that can be wrought with a single look. As with her depiction of older Fern, Bourne makes us conscious here that younger Fern’s actions aren’t good but never encourages us to judge her for that.
For a book that is, in many ways, an indictment of patriarchy on the development of women’s psyches, Girl Friends has an admirably diverse cast of male characters. Most of the men in this book are indeed terrible, but they are terrible in different ways. And some of the men aren’t terrible at all, or at least, we don’t see that side of them. Sometimes, the differences of opinion between Fern and a male character, like Ben, are less about patriarchy and more about coming from different backgrounds and experiences—Ben tries hard to be a good man and a good partner to Fern, but he didn’t experience life as a teenage girl in a small English town. Despite sharing a knowledge base in psychology, the two of them don’t always see eye-to-eye because their insecurities and fears are drawn from different places. That’s really interesting to me, the dynamic between them. Something similar happens between Fern and her best friend, Heather, who is a lesbian and much more strident about her feminism. Heather is not a better feminist than Fern simply for being more direct about it, but she also isn’t a worse one.
Girl Friends is a messy book in this way. Bourne reminds us that all of us, no matter where we come from, are struggling with our imperfection. We cannot be the perfect feminist, the perfect counsellor, the perfect girlfriend, or the perfect girl friend. We are, all of us, prone to making mistakes. We are also incapable of remembering our pasts objectively. The central question of this novel—should Fern allow Jessica back into her heart—is simple, poignant, yet so tough to resolve precisely because we can’t trust what Fern remembers—and neither can Fern. And it’s the answering of that question as the novel slides from climax to conclusion where Girl Friends finally won my heart.
Although Fern’s relationship with Ben is front-and-centre for much of the story, this is not a romantic comedy. The most important love in this book is a love between women, a platonic love, a love that pauses and then resumes across decades and distance. And as an asexual, aromantic woman, I am so here for that. Bourne says in her acknowledgements that this book started as a celebration of female friendship but, for various reasons, transformed into a book about dealing with trauma, and I get it. But I appreciate how, deep down in its bones, this story still celebrates the fact that women can love each other as fiercely and deeply as friends as they could if they were romantically attracted to each other. Perhaps the truth of that is only obvious in how they can hurt each other as much as one can be hurt by a lover.
Two of my auto-buy authors, Holly Bourne and Courtney Summers, have released novels with girl in the title this season, and both novels examine how girls and women get messed up by our society. I’m fine with this trend in my reading! The power of story to illuminate, excavate, exonerate, and when necessary, eviscerate, elements from our past … it’s exhilarating and intoxicating, especially in the hands of writers as talented as Bourne and Summers both are. These stories make me think and feel. Where my experiences of being a woman overlap, there’s a tenderness. Where my experiences of being a woman are different, there’s empathy. And in the liminal spaces, there’s curiosity and connection.