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'A Life In Friendships' Is A Life Well Lived

Jan 9, 2013
Originally published on January 9, 2013 6:31 pm

You know how sometimes in life you make a friend, and at first you want to talk to her all the time, feverishly telling her details that, by their very personal nature, will bind you to this other person forever, or so you hope? But inevitably, of course, friendships shift and change and become something different from what they initially seemed.

I think books can undergo a similar transformation. You start reading a book thinking it's going to be one thing and one thing only, but after a while you realize it's gradually become something else, too. And so you feel a complicated set of emotions that replace your initial one-note purity.

I sort of felt this way about Susanna Sonnenberg's memoir She Matters: A Life in Friendships. Initially, I found myself drawn right in to the author's friendship vortex, fascinated by the knowing observations and beautiful writing she's applied to this most compelling of subjects. Here's Sonnenberg writing about an intense summer camp friendship, described to Judy Blume perfection:

"She stood next to me and we held in our stomachs when Greg La Rosa ambled by and said, 'Hi.' She explained marshmallow spread as we sat down with trays of Fluffernutter sandwiches ... She made me a peach-pit ring, and I made her a peach-pit ring.

"On my last day we said, 'How can I live without you?' "

What surprised me in this memoir was that, as the narrator gets older, her friends sometimes reveal that they certainly can live without her. There are bad, raw friendship breakups in this book. In one scene, Sonnenberg receives a letter from a girl who had been her college roommate 25 years earlier: "What she remembered of our acquaintance was that she hated me," Sonnenberg says.

And as a young mother, after a relaxed lunch with a friend, Sonnenberg gets an email that has the bluntness of a wartime telegram: "I can't be friends with you anymore," the woman says. And in yet another encounter, a vulnerable Sonnenberg asks a friend if she and her boys can come over that evening. The friend puts her off, asking to do it another night. Sonnenberg eventually confronts her, saying how hard it had been for her to ask for something specific.

"Well," [the friend] says, "my time."

To which Sonnenberg replies, "But I should count!"

That line serves as the heart of this book, because of course the author does count — not only to her friends, at least much of the time — but also to her readers, who will surely admire her honesty, intelligence and lack of vanity, and be occasionally taken aback by her unrelenting intensity. As a result, the book becomes not only what I initially thought it was — an affecting, emotional and nostalgic look at the ways in which women form bonds — but also just as much a study of the boundary issues that can crop up between friends and threaten to ruin everything.

Sonnenberg, who's aware of her passions and ambivalences, and doesn't hide from them, made me think about what a friendship is, anyway. After all, you're not related to these people, you're not married to them (although in one compelling episode, she does become lovers with a friend), so what exactly do you owe each other? What are the rules? And why do they keep changing all the time?

It should also be mentioned that the author's first book was also a memoir, about her dramatic, unstable, druggy mother, one of those people about whom other people probably said, "She was larger than life." A life-sized mother would have been just fine, for it's easy to see how having such an overwhelming mother might not only damage a daughter's friendship here and there, but also heighten a daughter's need for caretaking, love and attention from all female friends, forever. The author certainly is well aware of this, and she never tries to hide it, but simply gets it all down on paper.

But here's the funny thing: Had Susanna Sonnenberg written an empowering look at all the gentle women friends she's loved over the years, her book wouldn't have been interesting at all. Instead, I think, she's written something that interests, exhausts, moves, perplexes, impresses and yes, matters.

Meg Wolitzer's most recent book is called The Uncoupling. Her next book is The Interestings, which will come out in April.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A new memoir explores one woman's life through her friendships with other women. It's called "She Matters: A Life in Friendships," by Susanna Sonnenberg. And Meg Wolitzer has our review.

MEG WOLITZER: You know how sometimes in life you make a friend, and at first it's really intense? You talk with your heads close together. You try to tell her everything about yourself over tea and white wine. And you think that all that sharing will make you close forever, but it doesn't really work that way. Friendships change a lot. And I think books can be like that, too. They can shift and then you have all these complicated feelings when you have to adjust your expectations.

I feel this way about Susanna Sonnenberg's memoir, "She Matters: A Life in Friendships." Her descriptions totally drew me in, like this friend from summer camp. She stood next to me and we held in our stomachs when Greg La Rosa ambled by and said, hi. She explained marshmallow spread as we sat down with trays of Fluffernutter sandwiches. Sonnenberg tells us, she made me a peach-pit ring and I made her a peach-pit ring. On my last day we said, how can I live without you?

It's like Judy Bloom perfection. When Sonnenberg gets older, she realizes some of her friends can live without her. There are some really bad breakups in this book. One is her college roommate from 25 years ago sends her a letter. What she remembered of our acquaintance was that she hated me, Sonnenberg writes.

Another time she has a relaxed lunch with a friend and then gets this email that's so blunt it's like a wartime telegram. I can't be friends with you anymore, it says. I felt sad for her. She has this really amazing lack of vanity that I loved, even if I was a little taken aback by her intensity.

She actually made me wonder about my own friendships. If I wrote them all down like this, would they look this fraught?

At first I thought the memoir was basically a beautifully written, emotional and nostalgic look at the way women become friends. In the end, it's also really a book about boundary issues. But in between is where all the meat is. It's the part that makes you question what a friend really is. You're not related to them and you're not married to them. So what exactly do you owe each other? What are the rules? Susanna Sonnenberg doesn't answer that.

But she has written something that manages to interest, to exhaust, to impress and, yes, to matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Susanna Sonnenberg's new memoir is "She Matters: A Life in Friendships." Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer. Her most recent novel is "The Uncoupling." For more news about books you can visit our NPR book page on Facebook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.