Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow

This was my first nonfiction read for the Nonfiction Challenge and was also my read for the Full House challenge for the category of Thought Provoking Book. This was a book club book that I would not have picked up on my own, but I am glad we read it!
The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship

This is written by Jeffrey Zaslow, who most people know as the person who helped to write The Last Lecture. I have not read The Last Lecture, but I did enjoy his writing style in this book. A man writing about female friendships seemed strange to me. Could he capture what it is really like to have a lifelong female friend? Would he just make the usual snide comments about PMS and menopause when the women were emotional? Would he try to explain everything away or would he actually listen? He really seemed to present the women as they see themselves, but also providing a bit of push when they wanted to downplay items. He is interviewing the women in their 40s and talking to them about a friendship that spans elementary school to adulthood for some and high school to adulthood for most. 10 of the 11 women were still living at the time of the book, one died mysteriously in her 20s, but the other 10 still think of her on an almost daily basis. Zaslow looked at letters, diaries, pictures, and gathered oral recollections from the women, their friends, families, daughters, and people from their high school to show how important female friendships are and to see how these women have managed to keep their friendship going so long.

You can't help trying to identify with a particularly woman and then thinking about how you are not like others. To me, Jenny, who is married and just starting to have children, would be the one that reminded me of myself now. If I start a family now I will be in my mid 30s and been married 8 years, just like she was when she had her first child. The same ideas of is it too late and having to adapt after going that long without a child, resonate with me. I also identify with Sally, who was treated a bit badly by the friends, who wanted her to be more outgoing and more talkative with boys and how ostracized her for a time. This has happened with me and my friends. They would get tired of me and the fact that I did not date much and was not as cute as they were and would drop me for awhile. When their boyfriends broke up with them or other girls were mean to them, they would come back to me. It still happens with a few of them, but I have some stronger friendships with people in my circle and have come to accept the "mean" girls as they are. I think for any woman who has spent a decade or two with her friends can relate to this book.

The women's stories were fascinating and at times ordinary, but still likable. The sections on the studies of friendship were a bit dry and statistical, but parts of them were interesting. It was only at those points that I doubted Zaslow's ability to tell the story of female friendship. He felt the need to tie it to those facts and to make sure this was a fact-based analysis. While statistics are important, friendship is something that is so much more. These brief sections were the only time I lost interest and he did quickly get back to the narrative.

Would this have been stronger if written by a woman? That would be the question I would have if I saw a guy writing about women. I think he did fine with it. He has three girls and is strongly attached to his wife, so I think he probably discussed this in detail with them. I also think he brought out more from the women than if they were talking to another woman. When I talk with other woman, I both complain, but gloss over my faults. I think when we talk to men, we are more honest with words, but less so with emotions. I wish Zaslow had asked his wife to talk to the women too to gain the emotional insight, but his use of private emails and diaries did help with this a bit. I think he managed to leave out his own bias quite a bit, so overall he did well.

This really made me think about my own friendships and that I am lucky to have friends from elementary school and college who know me and love me. It makes me think about past hurts, past joys, and hopeful futures. 3.5 cups of cocoa and a very interesting read.

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