You might have thought this was a one-time post, but if so, you don’t know me well. I love two things in the reading-for-pure-entertainment genre: wealth and dysfunction so I will always give novels that allude to either a chance. If they can also be about female friendship, even better! This month’s choices mash things up in a way that makes for interesting reading: in The After Party it is the rich friend who is non-traditional and trouble and in Rich and Pretty the rich girl is very traditional and a bit bland while her ‘poor’ friend in unconventional. Add to that the gender ambiguity of both author’s names (Anton DiSclafini is a woman and Ramaan Alam is a man) and this is reading that will keep you guessing.
The After Party Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: May 17th 2016
A five-year-old who lets herself be called by her middle name because her best friend had the same first name sets the tone for The After Party. The girl is Joan Cecelia, but for the rest of the novel, and her life, she is known as Cece because her beautiful, shining friend Joan Fortier could not be expected to change her name. Twenty years later Joan is still the star of the show that is 1950s Houston while Cece is married and the mother of a three-year-old boy.
When Cece is fourteen her mother gets breast cancer and a radical mastectomy. Her father has run off with his girlfriend leaving Cece is left to care for her dying mother so strong nurturing tendencies are not a surprise. It’s also not a surprise then that her father refuses to let her live with them after her mother dies and so Cece moves in with Joan’s very wealthy family. Steady Cece is seen as a good influence on Joan which does not seem to work when Joan takes off for Hollywood after high school, only to return a year later. From that point on, Joan’s path is one of misbehavior and scandal while Cece stays true and does what’s expected of her.
The After Party stands as satisfying women’s fiction about a time and place when life was very clearly defined, but the consequences for actions could be hidden for decades. Where author Anton DiSclafani goes beyond the expected is in the confusing and all-too-real exploration of identity within friendship. Cece’s involvement in Joan’s life goes to the point of impacting her marriage. It borders on obsessive and DiSclafani guides the reader through losing oneself to one’s friend—something many of us probably experienced but outgrew. Cece doesn’t and it imprints itself on her own growth and development—leaving her in the shadows while, regardless of the truth, it is Joan who radiates
Because without Joan, I would have been just another girl, with none of Joan’s radiance to claim as my own. Because I wasn’t radiant. I wasn’t anything, without Joan.
And these may be the saddest words in The After Party. That Cece, as a wife and caring mother, thinks she is not enough, that she does not glow in the way Joan glows. It is the theme of the novel that rings most painfully true for every girl who became a woman with a friend who seemed better and brighter than she was herself and so, rather than shedding the bond after childhood (or even the teen years) continued carrying the chain. DiSclafani makes this work by using a time frame in which people did not move away or uproot from their childhood homes, but were more firmly affixed to those identities. Nowadays, a Joan friend might be someone remembered, but hardly likely to be someone still in touch.
In Rich and Pretty Sarah and Lauren are the kind of young women seen all over Manhattan—confident in their belief that they belong there, even if that confidence comes from very different sources. For Sarah it is the knowledge that her parents’ wealth shelters her from anything ever going wrong in her life while Lauren’s arises from her belief in her ability to make her own way. They’ve known each other since they were eleven, but twenty years later what was a BFF situation is starting to lose the ‘best’ and the ‘forever’ and even the ‘friends’ feels shaky.
Debut author Rumaan Alam fills Rich and Pretty with exactly what is needed to make the novel gel. He twists the stereotype of rich and pretty so that while Sarah is rich it is Lauren who is pretty. You can’t have both. Lauren has a real job as an editor at a cookbook publishing firm while Sarah sort-of-works as a consultant at an AIDS foundation and Mummy and Daddy pay all the bills. Her kind of rich has led her down a traditional path—she is getting married and as the plans progress, with Lauren as her maid of honor, the differences in their lifestyles become problematic to both. Lauren’s attitude towards the traditional begins to rub Sarah the wrong way and after a wild bachelorette weekend and Sarah’s vocal disapproval things get heated. For Lauren
It’s about me being me, and not being you. This is what it’s about, Sarah. I am me, and you are you, and there was no difference there for, I don’t know, a decade? But now there is. And you get mad at me, for being me. And I get mad at you, for being you. Except you never actually get mad, you just get, morally superior. And smug.
I thought Rich and Pretty was good not great. Alam makes great use of the oversharing attitudes of the selfie generation in that not much is left unsaid about Lauren’s sex life, and yet, she mentions her discomfort at being hugged by Sarah’s father without any further explanation. Huh? So, while Alam easily recreates many of the dynamics between friends this and some of the other scenarios felt a bit off. This may be sexist on my part, in fact, it certainly will be to some, but I have to wonder if this is because he’s a man. Men can write as women and vice versa, but in the genre of chick-lit I prefer mine written by women.
Rich and Pretty didn’t quite work for me, but if you’d like another opinion on the novel from a blogger more in touch with Sarah and Lauren’s generational perspective go visit Eva at The Paperback Princess. Her review gave me a lot to think about.