“An uncomfortable, but very funny, and scarily realistic novel” – Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser

pnfrbgPaulina & Fran is Glaser’s first novel, and it’s out with Granta which, honestly, is enough on its own to pique our attention – their book list is never predictable and (we think) almost always on the excellent side of odd. And while Paulina & Fran isn’t precisely odd – it’s structurally conventional and the topic (obsessive female friendship) isn’t entirely new – it’s certainly idiosyncratic; while we weren’t initially enamored of the style, it didn’t take long to hook us. And we stayed hooked.

So. Paulina’s an art history major at a New England art college (unnamed but implied to be prestigious; a bastion of privilege at the very least) and Fran, a painting major, is her classmate. Paulina’s bored with her boyfriend (Julian) and with her best friends, Sadie and Allison (they’ve ganged up on her, she thinks; they’ve developed lives apart from her); she’s sleeping around and trying to find some purpose for herself when she notices Fran. Despite the collective disdain of their respective friends, the two girls bond on a class trip to Norway, and form a friendship that’s mutually obsessive, thrilling and destructive and that affects their lives for years beyond their cloistered college life. (No spoilers, see?)

Theme-wise, then, Paulina & Fran is something like Lena Dunham’s Girls crossed with Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals, with maybe a side of Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero style disaffected aimless not-quite-adults) and a touch of Donna Tartt (the New England exclusivity of said disaffection). It’s Unsworth for the intensity of the female bond, and it’s Dunham for the first-world-ness of their trials, but it’s wilder than either: there’s little that’s generous in the girls’ bond here – this is friendship-as-ball-and-chain in a way that’s pretty F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that’s realistic, right? A short-lived obsessive relationship that affects/infects everything that follows so that you’re never entirely free of the other – it’s extreme, but I bet we’ve all been there, and Glaser nails it. She switches POV between the two girls so that the balance shifts subtly from Paulina to Fran as the book progresses; we get the mutual push-and-pull of the hatred, love and need that keeps the women linked, which means that even if one character (okay: Paulina) is more objectively the ‘villain’, we end up empathizing with both, even as we want to smack the pair of them.

Stylistically, of the above list, Glaser’s book is probably the most like Easton Ellis – minimal description of anything other than hair, clothes and sexual encounters; self-obsessed, shallow characters; a light plot that’s driven by relationships we’re not sure we actually care about, but which are nonetheless compelling… She’s also akin to the whole affectless ‘alt lit’ scene in the US in terms of the text’s deadpan delivery and lack of extended introspection – only she’s not caught up in the tacit (or, well, not very tacit at all) misogyny of that one-time scene; while her characters (almost all women) talk almost exclusively about men (who wants whom; who slept with whom and why), that talk (and most of the sex) is a barely concealed mask for their preoccupation with one another.

It’s a book then, about women, that refuses to deal in society’s assumptions about women: what they want, how they think, why they act the way they do. Paulina, Fran and Paulina & Fran operate on their own terms and nobody else’s; they’re not easy to encounter, but they’re unforgettable, too.

Any Cop?: An uncomfortable, but very funny, and scarily realistic novel. Probably don’t give it to your BFF, though.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

 


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