With Friends Like These: A Review of How Could She
Say what you will about blurbs, they sometimes do work. My interest in Lauren Mechling’s How Could She, a new novel about three female friends, spiked dramatically when I saw a blurb on its cover from Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter, that read, “I know these women. I am these women.” Like many others, I inhaled the millennial-pink-covered Sweetbitter in the halcyon days of summer 2016, when it seemed we might have a woman president and the whole country would become one big Oprah’s Book Club. Danler’s novel is about a young woman who moves to New York City from some unspecified nowheresville and has her mind blown—by the grinding routine of restaurant work, the brininess of oysters, sumptuousness of French wine, and sex with a hot bartender. I follow Danler on social media, where her LA-based life looks extraordinarily literary while remaining enviably wholesome and sun-kissed. She shared a “fortifying lentil recipe” that she uses to “reset” via The New York Times and I actually made it.
I sought out How Could She expressly because Stephanie Danler said “I am these women” and I thought, if she is these women, then I probably am too. Or, at least I will want to be. As it turns out, I was only half-right.
How Could She is a novel of friendship for the nemesis age, the #MeToo age, the age of Trump. Which is to say, no one seems to care about anyone else and it’s depressing. The novel follows three frenemies in their late thirties—Geraldine, Sunny, and Rachel—who worked together at a Toronto magazine while in their twenties. Back then, it is suggested, working at a magazine was at least a little fun. Now, they must navigate patchy employment in a moribund industry. When the magazine where two of them work folds, they begin taking coffee-and-croissant meetings about newsletters and other ways to “innovate.”
As the action opens, Sunny and Rachel are living in New York City, while Geraldine— who lives, flailingly, with roommates in Toronto—dreams of it. Sunny is a rich and successful artist with a handsome husband and an infinitely Instagrammable life. The novel begins with her Christmas letter to her nearest and dearest (“Nick and I finally moved into the townhouse that Nick’s owned forever but never really dealt with”), and the reader understands instantly that she is the one we will grow to hate. In addition to a day job, Rachel is raising a toddler and trying to crack the code of successful YA authorship. She also has an attentive, white-guy academic husband named Matt. Geraldine, by contrast, was dumped at the altar by a billionaire fiancé with—surprise!—questionable ethics, and is now doomed to dating. (“You and Matt have this perfect marriage,” she tells Rachel, “...and here I am pining for a guy who can barely return my text messages.”)
Rachel and Geraldine love to hate Sunny for her picture-perfect life (“Information about Sunny was bitter poison to Rachel’s sense of self and sanity, yet she couldn’t get enough”) but Geraldine is somewhat secretly in thrall to Sunny’s magnetism and success. For their part, Sunny and Rachel don’t like one another—they’re merely former colleagues connected through a mutual sympathy for Geraldine. Meek Geraldine even finds herself envious of the enmity between Sunny and Rachel because it’s “so electric.” Neither of her friendships with these women seem to have any spark at all.
The novel is about triangulated bonds, and specifically the way subtle shifts can bring about swings in allegiance. In this case, everything changes when Geraldine decides to move to New York. While staying in a rich friend’s guest room and interviewing for media jobs throughout the city, she finally experiences a brief respite from self-loathing and, as if by some mean-girl sonar, the other two detect—and despise—it. The erstwhile foes Sunny and Rachel run into each other at work and forge a friendship based in gossipy faux concern for Geraldine’s wellbeing. It’s who does this bitch think she is? masquerading as I just really hope she finds what she’s looking for! Soon, they’re posting photos together and Geraldine, despite gingerly enjoying a budding happiness, finds herself the odd woman out.
Despite the thread of triangulated bonds, these women don’t seem particularly bonded. As the drama crescendos, it only becomes clearer that they are work acquaintances who’ve convinced themselves that they are friends. There is familiarity between them, and ample backbiting, but not enough pathos or nuance to fill out these relationships. Geraldine comes to town, and Rachel complains to her husband about her staying with them. While Geraldine is in the shower, Rachel reads her email. (‘!!!’ I wrote in the margin.) When Geraldine hosts a party and invites Sunny and Rachel, she deceitfully arranges her space for their benefit: “her work papers, a tasting menu from the River Café pop-up on Kenmare, and a notebook page with ‘Tues = deadline!’ all in fake disarray on her desk.” (Again: ‘!!!’)
Mechling, a longtime Vogue contributor and YA author, writes with a brisk confidence, and there are funny and satisfyingly of-the-moment details on nearly every page. The book is most delicious when read as a sendup of hipster-adjacent, smart-but-not-intellectual Brooklyn 30-somethings in media and publishing. There are dairy cleanses and postpartum doulas, rose-gold headphones and blog posts about wabi-sabi. There are “miserably brilliant” old classmates who’ve gone on to do things like write about “women and ISIS” for the New Yorker. And pitch meetings where our heroines (who are, in classic chick-lit/rom-com style, rendered to be clumsily human) say things like, “I’ve heard that a number of young women are getting tattoos of vulvas. We could assign an essay on body politics.” There are podcast festivals and dinner events with “cactus-and-crystal centerpieces.” The super-rich guy friend Geraldine stays with does “something with microfinance and socks.”
But for all of the derisive detail, Mechling’s characters are earnestly seeking fulfillment.
They are not young millennials, so they actually expect things from life. Which is a bit jarring after reading grim, fatalistic millennial workplace novels like Halle Butler’s The New Me and Ling Ma’s Severance, in which the machinations of obnoxious coworkers deftly reveal the yawning meaninglessness of contemporary culture and not even survival is guaranteed. In the universe of How Could She, work is mostly pointless and people are equal parts vain and self-seeking. Even worse, they want to be happy. They want stable, heteronormative unions. They want to produce good content!
A friend once wisely told me you’ll never lack for company when you’re down in the dumps—it’s when your star is rising that you find out who your real friends are. By the end of How Could She, the reader has been afforded the longed-for Schadenfreude. We’re reading Geraldine’s mildly obnoxious holiday letter while Sunny attends to her messy divorce. This time, it’s Rachel who has reluctantly decamped to Toronto, but at least she has a book deal in the works.
This novel, which is a breezy pleasure to read, got me thinking a lot about friendship. Namely, in what world is this it? My friendships with women—the deep, lasting ones—have sustained me for decades because they offer a divine reprieve from competition, and from the self-hatred we often feel living under patriarchy and capitalism. This is the radical potential of women’s friendship—when you do it right, it detaches you from the everyday demands and resentments of your life and plugs you into an unparalleled joy. It makes you laugh and feel less alone. It’s the thing that will outlast every job and all the Matts and Nicks and Peters.
By stark, jarring contrast, the relationships between Sunny, Rachel, and Geraldine function as repositories for their sundry insecurities. Their friendships don’t seem to reflect who they are or help them refine what they want. Rather, they define themselves negatively against one another and seem only to find success as individuals, never as a supportive whole. When Rachel’s husband says their daughter is growing up “watching her mother find new reasons to get jealous of everybody she knows,” I felt relieved that I no longer live in New York. I also felt sad for her, and for any woman in her late 30s (‘!!!’) who might still be calling semi-toxic attachments like these “friendship.”