Female friendships are volatile, magical things, as torrid as any romance and as complicated as a Rubik’s cube. Rachel B. Glaser’s debut novel Paulina and Fran deftly captures the intricacies of female friendship, set against the backdrop of a New England art school. Glaser knows this world well, having earned her BFA in painting from RISD and her MFA in fiction writing from UMass-Amherst, and the affectations of art school are everywhere in these pages: hours of thrift store shopping, the angst of being one of the precious few artists who “make it,” the competition for fellowships, the constant workshopping and critiquing (both in and out of the classroom), and the anxiety about earning an art degree and whether it will pay off.
Paulina and Fran, both curly-haired artists, meet at a house party, where the studied, careful ennui of aspiring artists flows freely, along with the beer. Paulina fancies herself a queen bee and harbors a vicious side; Fran is unassuming, innocent, quieter.
Paulina stared, realizing Fran was friends with one of Paulina’s enemies. Paulina couldn’t remember which girl. Her idea of Fran darkened. She wanted to be her, or be with her, or destroy her. She watched Fran’s breasts bounce in her dress. No one in the room seemed to be connected to her. Her cheeks concealed things.
Later, the two bond on a class trip to Norway, and though Fran gets glimpses of Paulina’s cruelty, the attraction between the two young women develops into a fierce friendship neither of them quite understand, passionate and hurtful, as Paulina’s unruly sexuality and mean streak destroy Fran’s relationship with her boyfriend, who is also one of Paulina’s exes. Later, after an unexpected tryst in the bathroom at a party, the two women never talk again.
Once art school ends, like so many other art school graduates, they move to New York.
Fran could hear the voices of the visiting artists from her painting classes telling her to move to New York City. One couldn’t be a real artist out here, they insisted. One might flourish upstate, but only after making it in the city. She had to go to galleries, she knew. She had to suffer, and do her suffering in the right place.
Paulina finds herself homeless and unemployed, and Fran is barely scraping by, doing odd jobs, when things change. Fran gets a job in Ohio. Paulina finagles her way into a job interview, where she divulges that she makes hair products, which she names Supercurl. The business takes off, and Paulina is living the life she dreamed of, but she still thinks of Fran, who is in Ohio, writing standardized test questions for a living.
She lay on her back, staring into the chandelier, wondering where Fran was, hoping it was a dark, damp, wretched space, like a war trench or sewer…. She wanted Fran to suffer… there was still that bundle of misery that traveled along with her, that let out little mites of suffering, even while Paulina laughed, even while she gleamed.
As the years go by, the reader sees the lives of these two women evolve and intertwine, yet never really connect again.
Glaser has a knack for capturing the minute details of art student life and the struggles of artists in a big city. Paulina is not always likeable—in fact, she can be downright repulsive—but Glaser gives her a sadly sympathetic note. Likewise, Fran can be a bit of a doormat, a meek creature who needs a good kick in the ass, but the reader watches as she slowly comes into her own and eventually does what’s best for her. The surrounding characters—the many men Paulina beds, the female classmates—never really come to life.
Paulina & Fran is a book about the struggle to survive as an artist, a book about female friendship and love. But most of all it’s a story about the friend that got away.
– Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others. Her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing.