The Girls from Corona del Mar

18518285The Girls from Corona del Mar
Rufi Thorpe
Published July 8, 2014
242 pages (hardcover)

When I was three or four, I got in a fistfight with my best friend during Sunday School. Her mom was the church organist; my dad was the preacher. It was scandalous, unladylike, un-Christian behavior. But we were pissed, and that seemed like the best way to resolve it.

I’m certainly not suggesting that fistfights are the best way to handle problems with your BFF. As we get older, we learn that communication resolves conflicts in a more reasonable (and, usually, more satisfactory) manner. I simply relay this story to illustrate that female friendships aren’t all rainbows and walks in the park. They are fulfilling and hilarious and amazing, yes, but they are also messy and complicated. There are spats—triggered by jealousy or selfishness or flippancy. There are Mean Girl moments and ­­­betrayals and the occasional Sunday-School fistfight. Sometimes these emotional peaks and valleys make a friendship stronger; other times, they are just too much for a friendship to endure.

Largely, books about female friendship don’t capture these complexities. They tend to be chick-lit fluff that focus on the joys and minimalize the hardships. But there are exceptions, and Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, is a standout. It is a book in which “female friendship gets its literary due” (or so says Vogue).

The book tracks a twenty-year friendship between Mia and Lorrie Ann. It begins with a fifteen-year-old Mia asking Lorrie Ann to break her toe with a hammer. She has just gotten an abortion and needs to get out of their championship softball game the next day. But Lorrie Ann can’t make herself do it; she can’t hurt Mia like that. So, Mia is forced to bring the hammer down on her own toe.

Early in the book, Mia, the first-person narrator, explains her yin-and-yang relationship with Lorrie Ann:

In a way, Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was, just as, I am sure, her personality formed as a result of mine. People do that kind of thing. They divvy up qualities, as though reality, in order to be manageable at all, should be sorted, labeled, pinned down. To this day, my mother considers herself the smart one and her sister the pretty one, even though her sister went on to get a PhD in marine biology and my mother became a makeup artist. For me, my friend Lorrie Ann was the good one, and I was the bad one. She was beautiful (shockingly so, like a painting by Vermeer), but I was sexy (at thirteen, an excess of cherry ChapStick was all that was required). We were both smart, but Lorrie Ann was contemplative where I was wily, she earnest and I shrewd. Where she was sentimental, I became sarcastic. Normally, friendships between girls are stowed away in boxed of postcards and ticket stubs, but whatever was between me and Lorrie Ann was not so easy to set aside.

The book tracks how these pigeonholes affect the women, both as individuals and together as friends, over the years. The book is a realistic (if somewhat sad and bitter) look at a long female friendship. There are moments of joy, but the book’s focus is on the moments of pain and tragedy and jealousy and narcissism and neediness. It is a book about how friendships shape us (for better or worse), how they affect our perceptions and expectations (of ourselves and each other), how they change and morph through different phases of our lives (high school, college, moves, marriage, kids), and how they have the potential to both help and hurt us.

Rating: 4/5

One of the book’s strengths is in recognizing and expressing how loyalty and memory and familiarity keep childhood friendships alive, long after the friends have changed or grown apart or gone down different paths. When Mia returns home for a funeral after years away at college and grad school, she notes that it’s good, but weird, to see Lorrie Ann:

Lorrie Ann looked at me critically for a moment, as though I were a gem she were assessing through one of those tiny eyepieces. Then she said, “I know exactly what you mean. For most of the year you are just a character in a book I’m reading. And then when you do show up, I think: Oh, God, it’s her! It’s her! The girl I knew when I was a kid. My friend.” She nodded then, smiling, her eyes damp, and I thought: She forgives me. She understands me. Perhaps that was what I loved most in Lor, nothing in her, but the very fact that she seemed to always understand me.

Another strength is Thorpe’s ability to describe characters in unique and interesting ways. She allows perception to play a big role in how characters are shaped. For example, this description of Lorrie Ann’s boyfriend, Jim, tells us as much about Lorrie Ann as it does about Jim:

Lorrie Ann considered Jim. He had many admirable qualities. When he was younger, he had had terrible acne, so now, even though he was strong and handsome and well liked by everyone, he wasn’t cocky and he never presumed. He loved his mother. He had an okay job as sous chef at a restaurant in Costa Mesa. He drank, but not so badly as to do anything stupid. He hadn’t gone to college, but he was smart: able to make the fast joke, to read people, to train dogs, to fix cars. He was a good dancer. He knew how to give a compliment. He had an unfortunate tattoo: the name Celia in cursive script on his left biceps. She had been his girlfriend in high school. But he had plans to cover it up with a tattoo of a crescent moon, or else a line drawing of a turtle. He really liked turtles. There was a small sandstone statue of one on the windowsill in his apartment right next to his futon, which is where the impregnating took place.

The book is well written, frank, and earnest. At just under 250 pages, it is a quick read, but it is not light. The ending is not wrapped up in a pretty little bow. This is not a Ya-Ya Sisterhood book about friendship that is going to make you want to meet up with your oldest friend and have brunch and go shoe shopping. This is the kind of book that’s going to make you think about the way life and tragedies and failures and successes affect our relationships. And it is a book that will make you appreciate healthy and stable relationships with your very best, oldest friends.

The hype:

  • An Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2014
  • An Indie Next List pick for July 2014

Who should read it: Kellie (i.e., people who are sooooo much better at this long friendship thing than Mia and Lorrie Ann, but who will appreciate the book’s realistic view of female friendship nonetheless); Erin (i.e., people to whom I raved about this book while I was reading it). Note: Despite the fact that this isn’t some chick-lit book about female friendship, I still think women would appreciate this book more than men.

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters (called a “gripping, atmospheric story of mind control and self-determination” by Kirkus Reviews)
  • The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (the #1 Indie Next List pick for July 2014; a LibraryReads selection for July 2014)
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