March 03, 2006
Women’s fiction has a tendency to revolve around familiar subjects — a lost love, new love, personal growth, parents, parenting, workforce situations and female friendships. More often than not, one scenario leads to another, a concept Elizabeth Noble explores in her latest book, The Friendship Test (Harper Paperbacks, 2006, 448 pages)
Noble doesn’t push any boundaries in this story. Mirroring her first novel, The Reading Group, Noble outlines her premise early and spins her story around it, relying on her characters to move the tale along. However, what begins as a promising story about the lifelong friendship between four women disintegrates into a novella about two women facing life’s crossroads — alone.
The Friendship Test begins at Oxford University in 1985, where readers are introduced to the book’s quarter — brassy American Freddie, nurturing Tasmin, beautiful Sarah and scholarly Reagan. On paper, these girls have nothing in common. Acquaintances only, a bond forms while trash-talking Sarah’s former best friend, who just stole her at-home boyfriend. Questioning the value of female friendships, Reagan likens the situation to Tenko, a television drama about women locked in a Japanese POW camp.
“I think you can look at a woman, or talk to her, or listen to her, any woman, for five minutes and you’d know how she’d behave in that situation, in one of those camps, and once you figured that out, you know pretty much what she’s going to be like in any situation,” Reagan said.
Both fascinated and entertained by Reagan’s observation, the girls make a game of it, analyzing themselves and others using the Tenko theory. Drinking alcohol and eating biscuits, a connection is made and the Tenko Club is born.
Fast-forward almost two decades: The present day story begins with Freddie on the worst day of her life. Married to Adrian, she is the mother of Harry and has just left her beloved child at his boarding school. Crying on the lonely drive home, she answers her cell phone only to hear her husband confess to the affair she’s suspected for months. Moment later the phone rings again — her father is dead.
Freddie’s life in no way resembles what she imagined for herself. Numb to her husband’s affair and estranged from her father, the double blow should send her wheeling. Instead, she turns to her friends, Tasmin, Reagan and Matthew, Sarah’s husband. With Tasmin and Reagan in tow, Freddie heads to America to settle her father’s estate and evaluate her own life in the process.
The Friendship Test jumps back and forth between the present story and past events letting readers see what has happened to the Tenko Club over the years. Yet rather than add layers to the characters and depth to the story, the practice simply plugs holes to move the present-day story along. Noble glosses over Tasmin, delves little into Sarah’s death, and doesn’t explain why the Freddie and Tasmin remain friends with Reagan despite her difficult nature.
While Tasmin is the first character readers meet, she is never fully developed. She is the mother hen, comforting Matthew as he mourns the loss of his wife and deals with his growing feelings for Freddie. She walks Freddie through her crumbling marriage, yet never connects with Reagan, who has her own demons to fight. In fact, Reagan’s own life crisis is given great introduction, but quickly forgotten as the romance between Freddie and Matthew develops. On one page Reagan is drowning in her self, but by the book’s end she is on her way to happiness. How she got there is never explained. The reader is given just a glimpse of Sarah, primarily through memories. Even Matthew, who ultimately plays the central role opposite Freddie, is more of a sketch than a three-dimensional person.
In the end, the book’s main focus is Freddie — her marriage, her son, her father, her life. The others are there to provide support or, in the case of Reagan, conflict.
The Friendship Test is melodramatic at times and predictable often, but moves quickly despite its length. While it will never be termed great literature or offer insights to the friendships among women, it is a deeper version of today’s popular “chick lit,” with a plot that will keep readers entertained. Consider it an early offering of this year’s summer beach reads and enjoy.
Meredith Hines-Dochterman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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