In Evans’ latest (Suicide’s Girlfriend, 2002, etc.), a friendship that has been dead for 20 years is suddenly exhumed.
When Charlotte Price started at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1988, she was thrilled to fall easily into a friendship with the gorgeous and vibrant Esmé Cole. “Female friendships always had been so hard for me, fraught with relentless deconstructions of who liked who better, but this person seemed utterly available!” narrates the older Charlotte. The two women became roommates for a semester while Charlotte’s boyfriend, Will, was away in Italy. Yet their relationship didn’t continue. After Esmé became pregnant and left the workshop with her boyfriend and fellow writing student, Jeremy Fletcher, a disagreeable Southerner with a Confederate flag tattoo, Charlotte finished her degree, married Will, moved into a tenure-track job in Tucson and wrote four novels. Although she finds out later that Esmé also moved to Tucson with Jeremy, the two women’s paths do not cross until Esmé unexpectedly drops in on Charlotte one morning 20 years after they last saw each other. The years have not been kind to Esmé: “A stout, red-faced woman stood on our front steps. Boxy, olive pantsuit. Cropped hair the color of Vaseline.” Esmé’s visit causes a crisis for Charlotte as she looks back on the end of their relationship, scarred by a secret betrayal that still haunts her. When Esmé’s intentions turn out to be less than friendly, Charlotte has to reckon with the consequences of her past behavior and hope for forgiveness. What Esmé ultimately wants from Charlotte is intriguing and dangerous, but it comes too late in the story for it to infuse it with much-needed tension, and the most dynamic characters, Esmé and Jeremy, are pushed into the background through Charlotte’s neurotic, self-indulgent narration. Because the stakes are never high enough, there is no sense of mourning for this dead relationship.
A novel about friendship, betrayal and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop could have been satisfying in any number of ways, but with a floundering plot and tiresome narration, there are too many missed opportunities here.