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'Best Friends Forever': Smart, Sassy Chick Lit

Aug 6, 2009 (Fresh Air)

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If you think "chick lit" is unworthy of critical attention, go away. If, however, you believe, as I do, that there are only two categories of books in the world — good books and the other kind (thank you, Duke Ellington), then I've got a terrific summer read to celebrate. It's the new novel by chick lit writer Jennifer Weiner, and the only thing lame about it is its title, Best Friends Forever.

Weiner's latest novel is already wedged into a special bookcase with the other books I reread every so often just because they make me happy — novels like Jeanette Haien's Matters of Chance, Susan Isaacs' Shining Through, Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, and, of course, Pride and Prejudice — the mother of all chick lit. What most of these and the other novels on that shelf have in common is that they're smart, witty fairy tales for grown-ups. Bad things may happen to the flawed heroine or hero of these stories, but in the end, the deserving dark horse triumphs. Most of Weiner's previous novels and short stories fit this plot profile, but what sets Best Friends Forever apart is its tough emotional wisdom. If there are any doubts that a work of mere chick lit can be deeply revelatory, Best Friends Forever should banish them.

It goes without saying that this novel is also very funny. Weiner has made her literary mark by generating a roll-of-the-eyeballs attitude toward elusive boyfriends, haughty health club staff and the countless other walking torments that populate her heroines' suburban landscapes. When this novel opens, 32-year-old Addie Downs has just returned from yet another blind date courtesy of the Internet. (The loser du jour confessed over dinner that he'd been violated by space aliens.)

Because Addie lives such a solitary life — her parents are dead, she works at home making paintings to be turned into greeting cards, and she's currently, as she says, "friend-free" — she printed out a note and taped it to her fridge before she left for the aforesaid doomed date. The text, in full, conveys Addie's bruised-but-droll worldview. It reads: "I WENT TO MEET MATTHEW SHARP ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 23. IF ANYTHING HAPPENED TO ME, IT'S PROBABLY HIS FAULT. ... P.S.: I WOULD LIKE A MILITARY FUNERAL."

Happily, Addie is not destined to remain alone that evening. Even as she's snuggling into post-date PJs, a knock comes at her door. It's her old best friend, Valerie Adler, whom Addie hasn't seen since they were both seniors in high school and Valerie dumped her for the cool kids. Blond, thin, gorgeous Valerie, who's now a TV weathergirl, has just come from their high school reunion — the reunion Addie resolutely avoided.

Valerie is wearing a bloodstained coat, and she thinks she may have (accidentally on purpose) run over the loutish former class football hunk after enticing him to take off his pants in the reunion hotel parking lot. "Please help me," the long-lost Valerie pleads. "You broke my heart" is the bitter accusation that rises to Addie's lips. But, in a gesture that affirms female solidarity over historical memory, Addie gets into Valerie's waiting Jag and the two ride off into an excursion back into their shared past, as well as into a present-time comical riff on Thelma and Louise.

Since Weiner's narrative jumps around in terms of chronology and point of view, the story, as it evolves, complicates a reader's first impressions, particularly of Addie. Sure, she's doing OK now, but how would she have struck even the most sympathetic of onlookers on that day, a few years ago, when she weighed in at around 350 pounds and found herself helplessly stuck inside a booth in the town diner? Slowly, within the main "lite crime" story, Weiner intersperses flashbacks to Addie's shy childhood, to the daily ebbs and flows of intense adolescent girl friendship, and to the personal tragedies that, until a couple of years ago, had turned Addie into a morbidly obese recluse, all belief in life's possibilities vanished.

Addie is one of the most compelling "nice girls" popular literature has ever produced, and because Weiner understandably loves her own creation, she grants her the gift of a redeeming "second act" in life. Addie's story rates a second (and, perhaps, even a third) read, too, because its unrelenting depiction of loneliness, as well as the myriad ways people can surprise themselves and each other deserve to be savored, again and again.

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