As may have become apparent from last week’s slightly cryptic post for Purity, or from endless Instagrams of Adelaide beaches and from gushing tweets about my friends, I’m back in Australia. By December I knew I needed to come back to Australia and now I’m here and it just feels right. I am sad and broke and have a lot of rebuilding to do, but I’m surrounded by incredibly supportive family and friends, the sun is out and the food is amazing. But my brain still swings from moments of euphoric glee to sadness and self-doubt. I know it’s natural and will take time, so while things settle themselves out I’m trying to be kind to myself. Lots of fruit and vegetables, exercise every day, spending quality time with good people. It’s working. But after trying to start All The Birds Are Singing and struggling to focus, I knew this was one of those times where I just needed to read something lighter and gentler. It’s happened before, like when I read My Salinger Year or My Berlin Kitchen — it doesn’t always feel right over the course of the first few pages, but at some point something clicks and reminds you why you just needed to be able to keep turning the pages without being overrun with emotion.
But whereas I have recently been reminded of the extraordinary capabilities of female friendship and all the love and care it carries at it’s best, Rachel B. Glaser’s novel Paulina & Fran is often an exploration of female friendship at it’s worst. The two central characters — Paulina and Fran — meet on an overseas trip as part of their art school studies. It’s crucial that they begin their friendship in this intense, heightened environment as this is also how they continue when back home. The closer the two become, the more they begin to alienate those around them: 'They can have each other, Paulina thought. I've got Fran.’
The tempestuous friendship swings from a claustrophobic closeness to ferocious arguments when Fran begins a relationship with Paulina’s ex-boyfriend Julian. Glaser uses the storyline to remind us of the flaws in female friendship, particularly when Paulina forgives Julian for his indiscretion, yet not Fran: 'She saluted Julian when she saw him, as if they had served together in a war and she would always have his back.’ My first instinct was to think this a little far-fetched and that Glaser was playing the two young women off each other in order to gather tension in the plot, however I was quickly reminded of a close friend who has recently been treated in the same way. How is it that women are often more likely to forgive a man’s mistakes, but not a woman’s?
Soon college has come to an end and the inevitable drift happens, suddenly all are out on their own in the world with an art school education, student loans to repay and they must decide whether they have the strength and talent to enter the art world. Do they follow their dreams and live the life of a struggling young artist in Brooklyn? Or do they end up on not-so-glamorous paths, working odd jobs in regional cities? Will Paulina and Fran’s relationship survive outside of the walls of art school? Or will their lives take different directions?
A week later, they all graduated in faux silk, then, like trash in the water, floated off to lousy jobs in obscure towns and heartless cities. Terrible things happened in the news. People killed one another in inventive ways, and Fran read about it guiltily, as if her interest promoted it.
Paulina & Fran didn’t entirely capture my attention, but Glaser did manage to keep me reading to the end through some sharp insights into the grubby world of being a young creative. The jealousy and angst of being at art school resonated with me, and the reality of life after school is observant and often biting. Glaser stops herself from putting forward yet-another novel about being a middle-class young creative in Brooklyn and instead hands us a satire on the dream to become this cliche, in some ways reminiscent of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Paulina & Fran isn’t perfect and I found the writing a little overly simplistic at times with it’s short staccato sentences that struggle to maintain a narrative flow, but it’s a fun book that offers a take on the darker side of the young art world and goes to places that not a lot of authors are willing to reveal: the jealousies, angst and difficulties of being an artist themselves.
While I’m back home in Adelaide I’m making the most of the amazing South Australian produce. With abundant sunshine and clean air the food in my home state is full of flavour. When I last lived in Adelaide I would go to the Central Market every week and whenever I am home to visit I always try to sneak in a trip for lunch or just to wander the aisles and soak up the atmosphere and smells. I love how much people in South Australia love their food and wine — the energy in the market is infectious, from both the sellers and the customers. So I grabbed some in-season fruits and vegetables and then for dinner I made this raw salad using the crunchy vibrant vegetables. I peeled off strips of zucchini, carrot, asparagus and cucumber and mixed with some finely sliced red cabbage and aromatic basil leaves. I made a simple tangy dressing using apple cider vinegar and olive oil, then served the salad sprinkled with fresh feta cheese. Another time I’d add some toasted sunflower seeds or add whatever other herbs I had available too. I took the salad outside and ate it with a friend sitting on her back verandah as the sun came down over the Hills Hoist and her dog chewed on a bone. Sometimes we just need to be kind to ourselves — take things one day at a time, eat well, sleep a lot and get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Reading Paulina & Fran in a sunny Adelaide backyard and then eating dinner with a friend as the sun set felt like part of that process.
When friends asked me what I was reading as I read Paulina & Fran I was too quick to reply ‘oh, just something light’. Too often we dismiss books as guilty pleasures either to feign a disinterest in a particular genre, to justify reading books written for younger audiences, or it can also be ‘a term often used as a way to disparage books written primarily by women for women’, as Nina Kenwood writes in this piece on the Readings blog where their booksellers reflect on their guilty pleasure reads. No one should ever feel like they need to justify what they’re reading — reading is at the heart of it a form of entertainment, but like film or music can often come heaped with snobbery and pretension. What’s worse is that sometimes this is only ever commented on by ourselves — no one would have said anything if I’d told them ‘I’m reading a novel about two female friends at art school’, I dismissed it based on a judgement they weren't even given a chance to have. Sometimes we need to eat pizza in bed, sometimes we need to dance and sing to Katy Perry in our kitchen, sometimes we need to read something different or watch sitcoms or just have a long hot bath. We shouldn’t feel guilty about it, we should just enjoy it. It’s all a matter of balance and looking after ourselves, who cares what other people think.