I passed over Paulina & Fran when I saw it in Granta’s catalogue last year, but a flurry of praise on Twitter made me reconsider. I’m glad I did.
Paulina & Fran is a sharp and arch tale of two friends – though frenemies might be more apt. Paulina Hermanowitz is a cool, formidable arts student in New England, though her reputation may exceed her and exist mainly in her own mind. “Paulina expected cheers when she walked in. ‘I have arrived,’ she said loudly. ‘Straight from my bed.'” In her bed she left behind her lover Julian – reader, keep an eye on him; he’ll be crucial in the plot. Paulina is vaguely dissatisfied with Julian. “She knew that curly hair was the hair of creative geniuses. It was a mark of originality in a woman, though she found it frivolous in a man.” Keep an eye on the curly hair too – it’s increasingly symbolic as the story proceeds.
How do others see Paulina? She is, Julian puts it frankly, “a benevolent monster who fucks well.” “A sociopath,” says someone else. On a student trip to Norway, Paulina meets Fran Hixon, and the two hit it off, even if Fran understands that friendship with Paulina tends to be intense and exclusive. “She couldn’t visibly socialise with others on the trip.” Also, “being with Paulina was like being under Soviet rule […] but it was worth it.” For Paulina’s part, Fran’s attention means she no longer needs her old friends, Sadie (who “loved pictures of cats and dogs but not the creatures themselves”) and Allison.
The book proceeds by way of social situations, from parties where “everyone was inside the same big mood” to brittle one-to-ones between the recurring trio of Paulina, Fran and Julian. Everyone is self-centred in the most obvious way, never thinking about anything directly outside their own lives, and feelings are only expressed in order to further selfish ends. “Sincerity felt queer.” Glaser, in other words, has no desire to make her characters likeable, and this is what gives Paulina & Fran its astringency and edge. It also observes acutely its characters’ worst flaws, which chime so strongly only because they seem recognisable to us. “Paulina didn’t just want their approval; she wanted them to be jealous.” Sometimes the most enjoyable passages of bad character are enjoyable because of, not despite, the cartoonish awfulness of the sentiments, as when Paulina attends the funeral of an acquaintance, Eileen:
If Paulina had to die one day, as every woman had before her, she liked to think her funeral would outdo this one in elegance and expense. There would be swans, and celebrities, and a river of tears. The gods would hover. Horns would sound. Just a glimpse of this eventual funeral left Paulina feeling ill. No event, no matter how impressive, could diminish the loss of Paulina’s existence. Tears filled Paulina’s eyes and she dedicated them to Eileen. Poor Eileen. If anyone wrote her biography, it would be very short.
This is a book of stormy circumstances, where the characters have more ups and downs than the stock exchange. It is a book also of the intensity of friendship and emotion in young adulthood, and of the difficulty of changing our lives. When Fran, late in the book, finds herself back in an old, familiar situation, she “felt relief. She’d found a loose thread to her own past and could follow it back to herself.” Furthermore, for a few hysterical moments it seems to mean to her that “the future was going to be easy! She didn’t need to meet a new person! She didn’t need to change!”
The downside of Glaser’s desire to create whiplash-inducing hairpin bends is that she indulges a weakness for swapping viewpoint between characters mid-scene, which has a destabilising effect on the narrative. But she holds her nerve for an admirably wintry ending, which means that after the dazzling sunniness of the opening scenes, this short novel can deliver four seasons in one day.