What a relief to find that women’s friendship, long relegated to the domain of chick lit, is getting its literary due. It was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend that really blew the lid off the subject, showing us the way such a relationship—boundary-crossing, competitive, urgent—could be so integral to the very forging of an identity. This summer, American authors including Robin Black, Emily Gould, and now Rufi Thorpe have probed the way that different close bonds can simultaneously define and upend us. How can we know who we are without that alternate self, that photo negative, that point from which we set our personal compass?
For Mia, the narrator of Thorpe’s slim blade of a debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar (Knopf), that person is her best friend, Lorrie Ann, the kind of gilded girl who manages to make beat-up Keds and too-small shorts look graceful. “For me, my friend Lorrie Ann was the good one, and I was the bad one. She was beautiful (shockingly so, like a painting by Vermeer), but I was sexy (at thirteen, an excess of cherry ChapStick was all that was required). We were both smart, but Lorrie Ann was contemplative where I was wily, she earnest and I shrewd. Where she was sentimental, I became sarcastic.”
It’s Lorrie Ann’s moral centeredness that really makes her stand out amid the In-N-Out Burgers and sham psychics of their childhood, which unfolds in the titular, not-yet-gentrified California surf community in the nineties. At fifteen, Lorrie Ann loyally drives Mia to a clinic when she needs an abortion, but refuses to smash Mia’s toe to give her an excuse for missing an important softball game. That a couple of years later Lorrie Ann will also become accidentally pregnant—and will make the opposite decision—is but the first crucial divergence in their paths: Mia goes to Yale, becoming a classics scholar with a loving boyfriend, while Lorrie Ann ends up trapped in a thankless cycle of martyrdom that brings out Thorpe’s fiercest and most feminist writing. (A childbirth scene, punctuated with the refrain, “Everyone ignores a woman in labor,” is once read, never forgotten.)
And that’s only the beginning of Thorpe’s beautifully unfiltered study of two lives in parallel, and the confluence and reversal that gives shape to each. In novels like this, plot and destiny are necessarily inextricable, but the author wisely avoids easy consequences or shimmering symmetries. Life simply goes on, as it does, our hometowns becoming unrecognizable, the years taking us to unfathomable places, until something—a phone call from a Turkish market, an email with a shocking query—changes everything we thought to be true about the person who knows us best.