Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: "When We Were Friends" by Elizabeth Joy Arnold

Sydney and Lainey are former high school friends. The two have lost touch over the last twenty years, so it's quite a surprise when Sydney leaves her one-year-old daughter with Lainey, claiming abuse by her husband and saying she needs to keep her girl safe. Lainey agrees but is shocked to see Sydney on the news that night, saying her daughter was kidnapped. Lainey must leave town and take the little girl, but where will she go? Who will take care of her mother, trapped inside her house because she suffers agoraphobia?

The premise sounded intriguing, but as it turned out, I didn't like the book very much. Maybe I was expecting more of a suspense story, although I do like books about relationships and people trying to figure themselves out. However, this one has a lot of tears and some rather flat characters. Lainey depends on Sydney to tell her her next move, but Sydney is a manipulator and doesn't really know what she wants. Because the characters seem at such losses, it felt like the author didn't have a plan either and was writing whatever came into her head, whether it made sense or not. The plot turned out to be unplausable, I thought, and little things, like Lainey worrying over not having money but spending wildly on baby stuff, and the punctuation errors bothered me. There are secrets all around, which do come out in the end, but for some reason there was very little suspense for me. I found myself not really caring about any of the characters, though I did finish the book. (It reads quickly, so I didn't feel bogged down.)

When We Were Friends is actually more about motherhood and the mother/daughter relationship than the story of a former bullied girl coming into her own. The title suggests that the focus would be on Lainey and Sydney, and while they do interact, the stronger ties are between Lainey and her mom and Lainey and Jacqueline. We do see quite a bit of backstory, but ultimately Sydney remains the same person she always was, and I didn't have any emotional connection as Lainey overcame her feelings towards her former friend.

I was reminded of another book I read last year called Mothers and Other Liars. That one takes place in the Southwest and is of a similar story, where a teenager takes a baby from a car that's been hijacked, intending to keep her safe but ending up raising her as her own. Then one day, the baby's family steps forward, wanting their daughter back.

When We Were Friends is told in the first person, whereas Mothers and Other Liars is third person from the viewpoint of Ruby, the teenager. The difference did contribute to my enjoyment of Mothers as I found myself seeing events through Ruby's eyes. Friends narrator Lainey seemed to get a little too familiar with me as the reader, interjecting little asides that probably were supposed to make it feel like she was actually telling me her story.

All the characters in Mothers seemed real, but in Friends there wasn't much depth. Sydney is a narcissist, Alex is the perfect man, his sister Posy can't decide whether she is a bitch or a chum, Lainey's mom is strong enough to overcome her phobia and provide inspiration for her daughter, Lainey should grow from insecure teen to confident woman but somehow comes off mostly as a whiner who manages to fall in love with Sydney's daughter. The most real character is the toddler herself.

The book is billed as a great book club choice, a "what would you have done" type, but I would recommend Mothers and Other Liars over this one. The plot is more believable and the ethical issues are dealt with better. I would suggest When We Were Friends for the less literary crowd, someone who simply wants to turn pages while lying on the beach without getting too involved in the story.

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