This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
I spent the first chapter of Rachel B. Glaser‘s new novel Paulina & Fran(Harper Perennial, 2015) laboring under the misguided belief I needed to like its characters. It was tough going. Once I realized the book didn’t require me to befriend its protagonists, I settled into the social discomfort of the book and my experience rapidly improved.
Paulina & Fran tells the story of a group of art school students who navigate the turbulent social politics of their insular and elite environment, and then must forge their own paths into thoroughly uninsulated adulthood upon graduation. Paulina is a queen bee of a curious variety. She’s no blonde cheerleader, but the comparison differs only in particulars. She’s got a head of luscious dark curls for which she creates her own hair care products, and she dominates–or thinks she does–the social world of her east coast art college. She claims and discards sex partners at an impressive rate, and shuffles and realigns her friends based on the day’s whim. Throughout her arc I was reminded of lines from Elliott Smith’s Alameda: “thinking about your friends / How you maintain all them in a constant state of suspense / For your own protection, over their affection.” Paulina is the school’s center of gravity, the provocation everyone around her alternately (or simultaneously) loves or hates, adores or rejects, lusts for or limps from, and yet it is no stretch to say she has absolutely no real friends whatsoever. Her personality begins as intoxicating but soon reveals itself as merely toxic. She’s a narcissist. She will not love what she cannot conquer.
Fran is a more awkward and human complement to Paulina, and enters her gravity on a trip abroad to Norway. She is less insufferable than Paulina for the book’s first half only because we sense she will figure herself out and grow into an actual adult human at some point in her life. Their relationship for the remainder of the book is a battle of wills–at times conscious, at times subconscious–between Paulina’s need to devour and Fran’s need to connect. There is sexual tension, camaraderie, competition, cruelty, laughter, and regret. The novel’s narrative tension derives from whether these two will ever get past themselves–get past Paulina–to actually realize friendship. The book’s final scenes pluck deliciously at this taught string.
The book is Frances Ha without the likable characters and the general sense of sympathy and good feeling. That is not a condemnation; Glaser constructs this book brilliantly. There is a delight in spying the mechanisms of a novel’s ticking and whirring without the magic being spoiled, and Glaser teases the careful reader with this revealing/concealing throughout Paulina & Fran. There is rich symbolism but it isn’t glaring. There are coincidences but we accept them. Just enough tension is relieved, just enough is bound up. The novel is a tight and careful politician masquerading as a loose and wild party child; in short, the book is Paulina herself.
Glaser is a gifted word artist, and this book is peppered with delightful sentences that are more than poetic flourish–they slice along social seams and tell us volumes about these characters and settings with a frugal economy of words. Take these examples:
“Dean was nimble and high-spirited as a teenage girl, and revered like a gay Christ.” – page 10
“The forgotten eighties song came on again, the synthesizer stirring up feelings, and everyone screamed the sound of youth loving youth. Everyone was inside the same big mood.” – page 13
“All month she’d camped out by his heart with little love of her own, but a stubborn need to star in someone’s life.” – page 145
Or one of my personal favorites that tells you exactly the kind of art school environment we’re dealing with:
“At the lecture, Fran and Gretchen watched a successful New York artist strip to her underwear and gnaw on a man-sized piece of chocolate. During the Q&A, students asked embarrassing questions and name-dropped other artists. The questions were met with a collective groan, as if the student body were one body, one that couldn’t accept itself.” – page 46
Paulina & Fran is one of the tighter and more skillful character explorations I’ve read in a while, efficiently but scrupulously drawn. Though Fran grows into herself eventually, most of these individuals are unlikable from start to finish, and yet they are fascinating. Their world is vicious, and they don’t seem to want it less so even for all their delicate skin and hearts. We enjoy them on the page even if we would loathe them in real life. Glaser is gifted both in language and in her keen understanding of human nature. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.