Since the phrase ‘BFF’ (for ‘best friends forever’) entered the lexicon, the corresponding wave of low-brow entertainment conceits (Paris Hilton’s My New BFF a notable offender) has been trite enough to make one wish for the death of female bonding altogether, or at least for the comeback of heat-packing, no-nonsense Thelma and Louise.
Brave, then, for established novelist Jennifer Weiner to plaster an apparently vacuous title on what turns out to be a smart and funny story with some unexpected depths. Adelaide Downs and Valerie Adler first meet as nine-year-olds, when Val’s family moves into Addie’s street. They enjoy a close bond, despite their differences: Val is the pretty, popular daughter of a flighty, hand-to-mouth single mother; Addie, shy, overweight and otherwise friendless, belongs to a textbook nuclear family.
The pair part ways in vague circumstances after high school: there is an incident between Val and a popular football player of an unspecified nature, and Val moves to another part of the country, where she achieves success as a local TV weather presenter. Addie remains in her now-deceased parents’ home, caring for her disabled brother, a talented athlete who sustained permanent brain damage in a teenage joyride gone wrong, and pursuing a lucrative but solitary career creating artistic greeting cards.
All this is backstory, delicately unfurled by Weiner from the novel’s opening pages, when Val materializes on Addie’s doorstep 15 years after vanishing, wearing bloodstained clothes and asking for help. What follows (and what may owe a debt to the aforementioned BFFs of the cinema), is a fun yet moving romp in which no one really gets hurt, but several people get what’s coming to them.
Weiner’s style and subject matter conform to many of the tenets of chick-lit, from the frivolous to the grave. The novel can plausibly encompass both an hilarious scene in which an on-the-lam Val, on a years-long diet because of daily TV appearances, devours a 36-ounce steak, baked potato, creamed spinach, cheesecake and crème brulee, and a subplot, rendered with astonishing sensitivity, that explains just how Addie has found herself so alone.
Weiner recognizes the tendency in some quarters to use the ‘chick-lit’ label as a pejorative, to signify the alleged ‘less-than-literature’ status of some fiction that is about or aimed at women. She has issued strong rebuttals to those who would demean the category, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that criticism of chick-lit “is a reaction against women gaining power and economic stature in the marketplace. Book sales are flat, chick-lit sales are up. And that’s scary to a lot of people. It’s better for the establishment to slap it down, degrade it.”
Weiner’s fearlessness in commenting on the state of literature and the audacity of some critics is a quality detectable in her characters, and some of the writer’s confidence may stem from her sterling track record: a former journalist who has been publishing fiction for only nine years, she found early success with her second novel In Her Shoes, which was made into a critically-acclaimed feature film, and has since published six more top-sellers. Best Friends Forever thoroughly deserves to be another.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones