We Can Still Be Friends by Kelly Cherry
The most frustrating type of book is that which opens strongly, shows promise, and then falls apart by the end. There are always hints along the way that the foundation is shaky, but we diligently read on, certain that the author will pull it off in the end. When they don't, books go flying across the room, and we actually pity the poor characters caught in a fate they don't deserve. Kelly Cherry's latest novel We Can Still Be Friends has such a great beginning, it's almost impossible to recognize the last half as part of the same book.
The book opens with Ava being dumped by Tony, a surgeon. Tony has just met Claire, an art history professor, who has finally taught him about "intuitive love," a term he uses a lot without having much of an idea what it means. Claire is married to Boyd. They have an unspoken understanding that Claire is allowed to have affairs as long as they do not become serious. Tony does not know about this arrangement. Ava, who suffered a miscarriage while Tony was halfway across the country in bed with Claire, feels she is owed something, and she decides that something is a baby. She meets Boyd and demands that he impregnate her.
Each character takes turns telling their side of the story. Instead of chapters, individual sections are labeled by the name of the character who is currently telling the story. There are a few scenes you read four times, each giving a little bit more depth. It's an interesting trick that would have been more effective had all of the characters been fully drawn.
As the victims of the story, Ava and Boyd are instantly likeable. Claire and Tony's affair is getting more serious, and they are both left on the sidelines. Ava is a bit neurotic, but she has a great sense of humor and her sections of the book are the most interesting to read. She is a women's studies professor, although that is not obvious in anything she says or does. As her mind wanders while Tony explains how Claire taught him how to truly love, she justifies her recent trashy fashion magazine purchase with, "She believed in Women's Studies, but she was in need of a long-lasting mascara that would not run down her face when her boyfriend informed her that he had fallen in love with an art historian." She has unrealistic expectations in love and motherhood, and other than one or two complaints about her pay compared to male professors, she never discusses feminism. Boyd is sweet and giving, only a little forgettable. He and Claire do not have children, something he obviously regrets, and he quickly agrees to sleep with Ava. (Evidently no one has heard of artificial insemination. They want to do it the "natural" way.)
Claire and Tony are instantly despicable. They are the bad guys. When we first meet Claire, it's through Boyd's eyes, watching her leave a party with another man. She doesn't even say good-bye to Boyd. Cherry uses a very unfortunate cliché to build up Claire. She's a cold hearted adulterous bitch, but also infertile. Cherry goes even further, however. She's infertile because of pelvic inflammatory disease, which is often caused by sexually transmitted infections. So she's a cold hearted adulterous bitch, as well as a slut. Why is she this way? So cold, so unfeeling. Could it be because she doesn't have a child to teach her to be selfless and giving? We see where Cherry is going with Claire way in advance, and it's boring. Tony, on the other hand, is completely blank. He's so unlikable, it's impossible to guess why two women would be desperately in love with him. Cherry hints that the reason Tony is so sterile and removed is because he's a surgeon and sees a lot of pain, making it a defense mechanism, but this is thrown in near the end of the book. The reader already hates him by then, and they're probably supposed to. If all four characters had been drawn as well as Ava and Boyd, the narration technique would have been much more insightful. As it is, it only succeeds in making us love the good guys and hate the bad guys.
All four of these characters revolve around this possible baby. Ava wants it, Boyd said he won't demand to be involved with it but changes his mind, Tony is afraid Ava will trap him with this child, and Claire is resentful that she can't give birth to it. Boyd has obviously not completely come to terms with his wife's infertility. He muses, "If only they had been able to have children… Children give you a reason, a focus, are like tables in the hall where you can rest the heavy package of your heart that you have been lugging around all day." The feelings about the child are so complicated, so rife with action, that you expect its arrival to explode everything.
It doesn't. It simplifies everything, like in some fairy tale. Ava, now a single mother who had been struggling financially just on her own, has no problems. Her financial situation is magically taken care of. She can't afford day care, so she decides to bring the baby to work. Magically, no one cares. The baby is always quiet, never disturbs anyone, and the boss doesn't mind. And Boyd, whose life should have been turned upside down by the birth, is just simply dismissed, thrown out of the picture. As is Tony. And as for Claire, the cold hearted bitch who just needed a baby to melt her icy heart, well, her icy heart melts. She and Ava bond over the child, arranging to share responsibility. Then the faeries come down and tie a giant red bow around the entire world, the bluebirds sing, and someone buys the world a Coke.
It's unfortunate the book couldn't hold itself together. The two sides of the beginning break up call between Ava and Tony is skillful and realistic. Boyd's inner conflict when he suddenly realizes maybe he still would like to be a father is perfectly pitched. Cherry is obviously a talented writer, so it's rather inexplicable why the book turns into such cliché and the perfect little ending. The main themes of the book - feminism vs. the desire to mother, infidelity, struggling with infertility - should have led to a complex book. Instead, it delves briefly below the surface at the beginning, and then suddenly soars into the unbelievable and the trite. I only wish I could have read the book that might have been.
We Can Still Be Friends by Kelly Cherry