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The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li is, in its way, a love story. It is about the kind of rare, singular love shared between best friends in youth–love that feels all-encompassing and total, full of turmoil, insecurity and envy. It is obsessive–sometimes toxic, sometimes tender–the kind of devotion that can be found particularly in girlhood.
The love I am describing is between Agnès and Fabienne, two 13-year-old girls in a rural village in World War II-ravaged France. Agnès is the one telling the story and the one whose eyes we see this world through. But Fabienne seems to be the main character: the one who acts. She knows things that Agnès doesn’t–about her body, the way the world works, and their places within it.
“She had her will. I, my willingness to be led by her will,” Agnès narrates.
And it is Fabienne’s will that propels Agnès into the spotlight. She concocts a plan and begins to dictate and give credit for her stories to Agnès, whose more pleasant and palatable appearance and penmanship make her a more believable author. As she gains fame and the possibility of an exit from their provincial life, it becomes clear that Agnès doesn’t want to be propelled; she wants to be close to Fabienne. She would prefer to remain in their insular, special world.
A Literature of Devotion
This enduring desire to be near Fabienne drives Agnès through the book is the kind of girlhood devotion that courses through Lenu for Lila in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and the unnamed narrator known only as Shit, for her friend Isora in Andrea Abreu’s Dogs of Summer.
“If there was one thing I knew it was that me and Isora were made the way things that are born to live and die together are made,” that unnamed friend says.
All three of these books–set in different eras, in different countries–are told through the eyes of young girls who alternatively love and envy their friends. In each case, the friend is more knowledgeable, more secure, and, perhaps not insignificantly, less well off somehow. They are either financially more burdened and/or without one or both parents–and, in the case of Fabienne and Lila, less able to access education.
The sought-after friends are kind of tragic in this way. They are naturally smart and made smarter and more mature by their circumstances. But they are unable to use their intelligence to change their position. In the case of Fabienne and Lila, they are talented writers who are unable to pursue a life of writing, while the admiring narrator somehow is.
In the same way that these girls have been educated by their more difficult lives, they have also been hardened. The sought-after friend can also be cruel, somewhat aloof to the desiring narrator. These are still young girls, even if they have been forced to take on adult roles prematurely. They are learning to relate to one another.
And a part of me wonders whether it matters at all who is narrating. Even reversed, the girl telling the story of this kind of friendship would envy the other, find her sometimes callous or ruthless, while also loving her and preferring her company to anyone else’s.
Young friendship is complicated. I remember so much that was fun and good and light, and unforgettable, but I also remember competition, betrayal, and senseless cruelty.
The Enduring Myths of Girlhood
Is the just the nature of young female friendship that causes these kinds of themes to emerge over the course of many books across time and space? Are they tapping into a universal thread of insecurity among young girls as they develop–this kind of constant comparison and unspoken competition?
Or is it the nature of the way that these worlds are constructed? In all three of these novels, the girls’ parents are largely absent, dead, or busy with their hard work or tending to ailing siblings. They are also set in provincial areas that the girls don’t often leave, so they must be creative in their play and on their adventures. We are in their world, and we are following their rules. And there is a magic to this, a childlike playfulness and innocence that remains as sex and maturity loom in the background.
When Agnès gets the chance to lead a new, more glamorous life, all she wants is to go back to this world–at once magical and totally mundane. After her adventures and her associated growth, It just might no longer be possible for her to fully inhabit it. I’d say that it’s no accident that The Book of Goose and My Brilliant Friend are both narrated by adult women looking back at their long-ago childhood friendships.
Even with its tumult and obsession, girlhood devotion is powerful. It exists in a kind of magical place between childhood and adulthood–one that the girls have no choice but to outgrow. But first love isn’t easy to forget.