Female friendship is a frequent theme in fiction, or at least what’s often dubbed as ‘women’s fiction’ – a label best avoided in my view. It can be more than a little idealised but that’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Rachel B. Glaser, for sure. Her first novel, Paulina & Fran, is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from their meeting as students back in 2000 along the thorny path their friendship is propelled.
Paulina has already been chucked out of Smith before landing up at the New England art school where she meets Fran. She rampages around the campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. It’s never quite clear what Paulina’s particular artistic bent is but she’s more than a little forthright about her fellow students’ work. Despite that she’s managed to acquire two friends – Sadie and Allison – who trail along in her wake. Paulina signs up for a study trip to Norway mainly to launch another onslaught of sexual advances at the guy she’s had in her sights all semester. On the bus to the airport she spots Fran, last seen dancing in front of a shattered mirror at a party. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. Back in New England, Paulina abandons Sadie and Allison for Fran. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other.
Glaser’s novel is both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran – the more conventional of the two – is similarly well drawn, incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while settling for the kind of job that would make her erstwhile friend spit bile at its merest mention. Glaser has a sharp eye for the striking phrase – ‘every nightgown came with a few bad dreams’; ’anxiety fidgeted through her body’; ’Why couldn’t people stay where she put them?’; a ‘silk shirt that wrinkled with her every thought’ – are just a few to whet your appetite. It’s a very smart piece of fiction. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.