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I often use the psychology of Mean Girls to understand interpersonal interactions. In fact, I wonder aloud at least a couple of times a month if we’re destined to play out Mean Girls for the rest of our lives. Based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman, Mean Girls is a darkly humorous look at what can be a painful, angst-ridden time for young women. Queen Bees and Wannabes is one book in a pretty large body of popular non-fiction aimed at understanding adolescent female psychology. Other popular titles include Reviving Ophelia by Mary Bray Pipher, Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons, and the highly influential Meeting at the Crossroads by Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan.
While I generally think that well-written nonfiction can be just as compelling and engrossing as fiction, when it comes to psychological matters, fiction usually triumphs (with the exception of Truman Capote , of course). The False Friend by Myla Goldberg is a deceptively simple novel. It is a slight 252 pages with a seemingly straightforward premise: Celia returns to her hometown to confront a traumatic memory that she has previously repressed. When she was 11 years old, she walked into the woods with a group of friends, and one, her best friend Djuna, never returned. What initially seems to be a story of confession and redemption becomes mired in the unreliability of memory, point of view, and perspective. Celia’s recollections of the disappearance vary significantly from the way others remember it. She begins to discover that the reality she has built for herself may be built upon faulty memories and beliefs. As Celia speaks with friends and family members, it is clear that she has a very fractured memory of her childhood self.
As readers, we come to understand that Celia’s life has been impacted as much by her pre-adolescent behaviors as by the shocking disappearance of her best friend. Goldberg explores through fiction what is so difficult to express in nonfiction—the pervasive psychological effects of bullying. Mean girls grow up, but they carry their childhood thoughts, beliefs, and ways of coping with them. So, too, do the ones who are bullied. The False Friend is a beautiful and powerful novel about the confluence and collision of Celia’s adult and childhood selves. Because of the issues it raises, The False Friend would make an excellent book club choice. Just be sure to watch Mean Girls, too.