GIRLS THEY WRITE SONGS ABOUT
By Carlene Bauer
308 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
The evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar is fond of the term homophily — “love of the same” — to describe why certain people strike up friendships. We’re all aware of the phenomenon in which longtime pals grow alike, but homophily suggests that a fair number of them are actually alike from the start. The relevant proverb: “Birds of a feather flock together.”
The two women of Carlene Bauer’s glittering novel “Girls They Write Songs About” define homophily. Charlotte and Rose are brave and reckless, self-critical and stylish. Both are obsessed with writing and music. Both find themselves in New York City in the late 1990s for the same reason, which Bauer summarizes in one of the great opening lines of recent memory: “Rose and I moved to New York to be motherless.”
These two women are products of second-wave feminism. They’re intent on shirking the influence of their mothers, whom they dismiss as long-suffering doormats. For a while, it feels terrific. Rose and Charlotte are free! Free to work at a music magazine that flies its entire staff out to London for a festival. Free to focus on their careers. Free to devour booze, pizza, men, adventure.
Bauer’s novel begins as an ode to the alchemy that occurs when two strangers find their sensibilities and tastes to be miraculously congruent. Who needs a romantic partner when you have a best friend? Who needs a diary when you have a living, breathing receptacle for every opinion, daydream, fantasy, guilty confession and scrap of gossip tumbling around in your head?
But the reader knows this epic friendship will end; the gloomy forecast is announced on Page 1. “We thought that if we worked hard enough we would one day, and on time, stand exactly where we hoped,” observes Charlotte, the book’s narrator. “But we were neither selfish enough nor selfless enough to become heroines. And even though she and I are no longer speaking, it makes me happy to think and write of that we.”
From the start, the Charlotte-Rose relationship is electrified and contaminated by a sense of competition. They are proprietary about their writing assignments. Charlotte has more discipline. Rose has more style. Both are in the painful position of having aptitude but not genius: “I had nothing, really, to say — only the compulsion to say something and get paid for it,” Charlotte admits. They might be, as the title has it, girls that other people write songs about, but they’ll never be songwriters.
For years the two romp through New York, drinking spiked iced tea at Jones Beach and stalking Lou Reed, gathering material to build out their identities like a couple of wrens accumulating twigs for a nest. Then there is a rift.
At first this split is mutually puzzling. You can sense each woman thinking: We still have identical opinions about sexual freedom and vintage dresses and the ideal location to sit in a movie theater — so why are we floating apart? Ah, but it’s their values that have changed. The tempo of the breach recalls Hemingway’s famous line about how a person goes bankrupt: gradually and then suddenly.
Gradually, and then suddenly, Rose wants different things from life. She wants financial stability, vacations in Mexico, a brownstone with a shady backyard and an excuse not to finish the book she has been hired to write. She marries a lawyer she doesn’t love, a man who diverges in every way from her “usual muesli mix of art-damaged ruffians.”
To Charlotte, Rose’s pivot to bougie fussiness is a regression and a betrayal. Neither woman would deny that their presence in New York, along with that of everyone else in their cohort, has exerted a gentrifying effect. But they weren’t supposed to gentrify themselves. They weren’t supposed to care about breakfast nooks and intricate moldings and buffed hardwood floors.
A sense of class anxiety pops up between the two friends overnight, like black mold. Rather than accuse Rose of breaking their unspoken pact, Charlotte makes snarky comments. “Is it me or does this feel like playing with a gargantuan Barbie Dream House?” she asks one afternoon while Rose signs the credit card receipt for drapes at a store full of objects that Charlotte can’t afford.
What follows over the course of the novel’s two decades isn’t as decisive as a breakup. Instead, Bauer explores the nuanced topic of how a person’s emotional metabolism can slow over time. It’s easy for a 20-something to binge on wine and grilled cheese sandwiches without feeling like death the next morning; harder to do those things once you hit 40. That also goes for one-night stands and moody outbursts and rhapsodic pledges of eternal affection.
Bauer is the author of a previous novel, “Frances and Bernard,” and a memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl.” Her third book reveals a sharpened eye for social detail and a Laurie Colwin-esque ear for dialogue. The novel’s pockets of sentimentality are offset by streaks of viciousness, accurately reflecting how we tend to remember our pasts: happy times bathed in a distorting glow, miserable times diminished and disowned.
“Girls They Write Songs About” is a love story about two friends, but it’s also something thornier — a narrative about the cycles of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment that make up a life.