- Sarah Pekkanen
- Washington Square Press
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Virginia Pasley
- May 1, 2012
Three young women thrown together by chance in New York City, and harboring secrets, discover the power of female friendship.
In her new book, These Girls, Sarah Pekkanen explores how a cramped living situation in New York City can bring three roommates together despite their differences ― and their mysterious pasts.
Cate is the new features editor at Gloss, a stand-in for InStyle or Cosmopolitan. She’s young and inexperienced enough that even she questions her sleazy boss Nigel’s motives for promoting her. She’s attractive and thin, but her shyness looks like reserve, which makes her co-workers resent her good fortune.
Except for Renee, her roommate and an associate editor at the magazine. Renee, unburdened by the pressures of being New York Thin, is permitted to have a bit more of a personality. Her size 12 curves come with a warmth and humor that make her, by far, the book’s most likable character. Although Pekkanen all but labels Renee’s sassy remarks “This Is A Joke!,” Renee is still funny enough to make an impression.
Abby is the waifish, traumatized newcomer who arrives unexpectedly on her older brother Trey’s doorstep. Trey, a strapping adventure journalist with improbable cash reserves (explained away by a movie deal), asks his friends Renee and Cate to take her in.
Pekkanen dips in and out of the past to tell the girls’ stories, hinting at the secrets that keep them permanently on edge and suspicious of the world around them. Each longs for someone to confide in, but is unwilling to be the first to break.
It takes a long time for any of them to break: Even when they’re alone with their own thoughts (and the reader), the girls’ inner monologues skirt the secrets they apparently can’t bear to even think about. We’re told on page 4 that Cate has a secret, on page 23 that Renee has a secret and it’s obvious that something is up with Abby from the moment she arrives on page 30. We don’t get to find out about that secret til almost the end of the book.
The suspense can wear a little thin, especially when we are repeatedly reminded of the existence of A Secret without any hint of what it could be. It’s hard to care about a mystery without context ― what is the scale, what is at stake, and can it really stay a secret forever?
Without knowing how big the secrets were, I overestimated the first two and underestimated the third. Thanks to my overactive imagination, the first revelation was particularly anticlimactic, making it hard to sympathize when that character has a panic attack every time she sees someone with a connection to her college ― the setting for her Secret ― especially when the people in question are a good 15 years older than she. I felt like taking her aside and saying, “Sweetheart, do the math ― you’re fine.”
It’s always fun to get a glimpse into the high-flying world of a New York fashion magazine, where even the lowliest editors can borrow a blouse Renée Zellweger wore and free beauty products line a shelf in the office, in hopes of a good review. It is somewhat grating to be told that picture-perfect Cate “hate[s] shopping” and “[isn’t] a big fan of makeup,” despite her job. It’s easier to root for Renee, who loves makeup and being pampered, but struggles with the fear that everyone thinks she’s too fat to be promoted to beauty editor.
Abby is not hard to sympathize with, per se; she easily wins the contest for most scandalous life, and the reader is eager for revelations about how she went from working as a nanny for a little girl in Maryland to running away to New York with just a backpack. But her repeated criticism of the little girl’s mother, Joanna, gets tiring. Every time Joanna is mentioned, Abby ― who is normally sweet and unassuming ― does not hesitate to call her cold and unmotherly. Joanna works long hours for a senator, and when they meet, Abby immediately indicts her for not looking at her daughter enough, and ― in a fairly shocking display of ingratitude ― for hiring Abby at all, thereby “hand[ing] over the best part of her life.” So, if a mother is not in ecstasy over the toddler years, she’s callously rejecting the best part of her life? It’s unclear whether this oversimplified characterization is supposed to excuse Abby’s growing affection for Joanna’s husband, Bob, but for this reader, it didn’t work.
Overall, These Girls is refreshing in that it prioritizes friendship over romance, and in the gravity of the issues with which it grapples. Sexual harassment, adultery, secret half-siblings and dangerous diet pills may seem like well-trodden ground for beach fiction aimed at women, but Pekkanen neither sensationalizes nor underplays their seriousness. She also doesn’t allow herself too much ominous foreshadowing, instead letting each character live in the moment, even if the reader suspects that the path she’s on will lead somewhere bad. By the end, there were still some surprises I genuinely did not expect, and some characters I wanted to see triumph, and what more can you ask from beach fiction?
Virginia Pasley is a producer and reporter at the American edition of the Voice of Russia Radio in Washington, D.C. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.