The False Friend

Myla Goldberg's third novel returns her to territory that might seem strikingly familiar, demographically speaking, to readers of Bee Season, her warmly received debut novel published a decade ago. But, although both novels painstakingly construct the world of eleven-year-old girls, The False Friend's Celia Durst and her best friend, Djuna Pearson, could not be more different than Eliza Naumann, the awkward heroine who finds deliverance from her drab place in her school and family by becoming a spelling bee champion. Celia and Djuna are queen bees of a different sort, the movie stars of the grade school playground, with a fan club of awestruck hangers-on, who willingly defer to their tastes (pink and lavender, unicorns, Tretorn sneakers) and submit to their tests. They are, in a word, bullies, until a shocking intervention from the adult world outside the playground transforms Djuna from tormenter into victim: one day, while walking with five girls near the woods, she disappears into a brown car and is never seen again.

 

Twenty-one years later, Celia, now 32 and living in Chicago, is struck by what she believes to be a repressed memory that suggests things might have happened differently than she described, and that she might actually hold some blame for Djuna's disappearance. The next day she books a flight back to her parents' hometown of Jensenville, a once-quaint town in upstate New York where the family-owned Victorians have now been turned over to drunken students, "the real estate equivalent of inviting caterpillars into a tree." Though Celia comes as a supplicant, all her attempts to confess are muffled by her parents' impenetrable layers of good will, propriety, and stiff New England reserve. Goldberg captures perfectly the frustration of trying to talk about passion and wrongdoing in a family where the parents find it unseemly to be seen in their pajamas in front of their children and a raised voice is considered "the vocal equivalent of public frontal nudity." Huck, Celia's handsome high school teacher boyfriend of nearly a decade, pines over Celia in her absence, while wondering when she might be willing to graduate from raising dogs to raising children with him, but shares her parents' sunny view of Celia's basic goodness. "The eleven-year-old girl she described to Huck was a stranger. Only Celia recognized what she'd done."

 

But, as further revelations unfold, the reader comes to understand that even Celia has yet to recognize what she has really done, and to whom. She begins to grapple with the depth of cruelty of which children are capable: "The unadult mind is immune to logic or foresight, unschooled by consequence, and endowed with a biblical sense of injustice." Revisiting the territory of the past with Celia, Goldberg reminds her adult readers of the power of a claustrophobic girlhood friendship that "could only ever be a child's possession" because "only a child could withstand its stranglehold." But as she moves through the town, we see that Celia is unaware of the force field she once created in the minds of others: the unattainable beauty, the friend who left others behind, the villain whose former victims still seek vengeance, the child whose confidence boosts parental pride. These different sides, Goldberg seems to suggest, might themselves reinforce Celia's unconscious sense of the naturalness of her regal role, even as her nostalgic infatuation with Djuna blinds her to the childhood crimes for which she can truly atone.

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