By Leah Stewart
Broadway Books, 2006
As the novels of Elena Ferrante prove, books about the friendships of girls are having a moment. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is in realist mode, a realism so acute that people have obsessed about Ferrante’s true identity, as if to out her as a memoirist rather than a novelist.
What is the role of one’s own experience in fiction, and what comes from tapping into a universal subconscious or semi-conscious experience? Ah, the slippery mind and even more slippery memory! Memories shape our present, and unconscious motivations formed from memories push us in ways we are not aware of. The past and the present weave together, all acting on us at the same time. Ferrante’s characters have four complete novels in which to complete their psychological tasks based on the events of their childhoods. So, the novelist who sets herself the task of unpacking the mystery of motivation in one book has my sympathy.
A dream-like quality of past and present interacting infuses The Myth of You and Me.
Leah Stewart begins her story eight years after Sonia (you) and Cameron (me) have ended their girlhood friendship. The book moves back in forth in time, showing how the choices each of these girls made is due to her own need for self-affirmation in the face of parental disapproval or indifference. As I read Leah Stewart’s author bio after I read this book I realized that she’s lived in all the places she writes about, and had the peripatetic childhood of her protagonist. But this is fiction, and the setting was, I felt, a sideshow to the plot. Which concerns a power dynamic between two very different girls, a dynamic that fuels their subsequent lives. As close as they are, they, like everyone else, make choices they can’t fully explain.
I won’t be a spoiler, because this story is complicated. But the truth is that the friendships
of girls are intense, way more intense than male friendships. In this hyper-sexualized age, that
closeness may be misunderstood. I’d say that when girls undergo together the utter sea-change of puberty their relationship can be as close as any known to humans. It’s a mental communion in which best friends can say absolutely anything to each other. Sometimes, of course, those spoken words can be hurtful. This intimacy between teenage best friends cannot be replicated in later life. It has to start young, and if we’re lucky, can continue for the rest of our lives. The mysteries of changing bodies, the secrets, the boyfriends, the sometimes inexplicable choice of life partners, the tests all of us endure as we grow up, all become tolerable because we have a friend to tell. When a friend does something unforgivably hurtful to the other and the relationship ends, that can haunt a girl’s future.
Leah Stewart, in her afterword to the book, speaks of writing it as she awaited the birth of
her child. So she is still close in time to the memory of her bestie. I am an older woman, and I
felt tears rising as I ended this book. I have lost too many friends in the past few years. Now, my dear friend, whom I have known since I was thirteen, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
I cannot imagine life without her. Everything we’ve shared, all the secrets and the longings and
the disappointments and the triumphs – who else will be able to remember these? All those
things will happen to other girls as they grow up, but our story will be gone. I can only take
comfort from the fact that these close relationships will continue for those to come after us.
Leah Stewart has hit upon a universal truth in this story. She’s written several more books
and I intend to read them.