THE FALSE FRIEND by Myla Goldberg

Book Quote:

“A friendship like hers and Djuna’s could only ever be a child’s possession. Only a child could withstand its stranglehold.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (OCT 7, 2010)

Celia Durst and Djuna Pearson are best friends in middle school and have been queens of their clique since elementary school. They have a very tight, mercurial and labile relationship but they usually get over their fights very quickly. One day, as they are acting out by walking in a wooded area where they aren’t supposed to go, Djuna and Celia have a fight. Celia walks away from Djuna and moments later Djuna is abducted by a man in a brown car. Three of the other girls from their clique are there and witness this event. Djuna is never seen or heard from again despite extensive police investigation. Celia can never remember the details of the event until she becomes an adult and then her memory of what actually happened is very different from what allegedly transpired.

The False Friend by Myla Goldberg opens twenty years after Djuna’s disappearance. Celia is an auditor for the city of Chicago and has been living with Huck, a history teacher, since right after college. Her relationship with Huck is in stasis and Celia is worried that he will leave her. Huck wants children and Celia is not up for parenting. Celia suddenly has a recovered memory about Djuna’s disappearance. She remembers walking with Djuna, the two of them having a fight, and then Djuna falling into a hole (like an abandoned well) while Celia just walks away and leaves her there, never telling anyone. Celia decides to fly back east to upstate New York where she grew up to do some reality-testing. She wants to tell her parents about her memories and talk to the other girls who were there that day.

This book is as much about the relationships of ten and eleven-year-old girls as it is about Djuna’s disappearance. Ms. Goldberg’s knowledge of the way that girls can be cruel to one another is right on the mark. There is one girl named Leanne who is always trying to be part of Djuna and Celia’s group but they make it almost impossible for her. Instead of telling her no or ignoring her, they shame and humiliate her. “Standing Leanne against the flagpole had lent their scrutiny an official air. Starting from her head, they worked their way down, inspecting the way she pushed her hair behind her ears, the slope of her neck as it emerged from her shirt, or some other random aspect of Leanne’s body completely beyond her control. Occasionally they would give Leanne homework, and she would show up the next day wearing something with flowers on it, or having curled her bangs. A passed inspection meant she was free to join them at lunch and recess: failure meant she had to earn their company.” This ritual was repeated daily and Leanne was graded harshly, especially by Djuna. This went on for several grades. Sadly, Leanne was such an easy mark and never spoke up for her own defense nor gave up trying to please the unpleasable.

Right after Celia recovers her memory, she returns to her hometown and tries to research the events of the traumatic day that Djuna disappeared. She attempts to contact the other girls, now women, to see what they remember. One of them has been so traumatized by Djuna’s disappearance that it is reflected in her life’s work. Celia finds out how immeasurably painful their treatment of Leanne was to her. Many of the realizations she acquires are more about the way they were as girls than about the disappearance itself. I think that this is one of the main points that Ms. Goldberg is making in the book – Celia is hoping to find something out that can no longer be separated from who she was as a girl.

Complicating matters is the way that Celia’s parents interact with each other and with Celia. They are both quite repressed and restrained individuals. Emotions are hard for them to show. Celia begins to see herself in her parents and compares this to Huck’s love and emotional expressiveness versus her personal restraint.

As Celia discusses her new revelations with Huck, her parents and her childhood friends, they all have different reactions to her. What is more interesting than their reactions, however, is what she finds out about them now in comparison to who they were when they were children. The book touches on nature and nurture along with the difficulties of child-rearing, especially parents allowing for autonomy and individuation.

This book is a literary mystery on several levels. It is a search for the truth of that one day when Djuna disappears, the search for who these five girls were twenty years ago, and how these girls became the women they are today. While Ms. Goldberg is excellent at portraying the behaviors and emotions of pre-adolescent girls, segments of the book can be confusing and create challenges. At times I became unclear about what Celia is looking for and what she actually finds. Perhaps this is part of the mystery. When we go back into the past, we can only go so far and we can’t take our childhood selves with us as adult excavators.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 35 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday (October 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another look at growing up:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Another “girlfriends” mystery:

Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman



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October 8, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family Matters, Mystery/Suspense, Reading Guide

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