Fiona and Jane: On Friendship

I met my two best friends during the first year of college. We’ve been a trio for many years now, three decades, and although I remember meeting them very clearly it’s also almost impossible to realize that there was ever a time when my first reaction to significant news — good or bad — wasn’t to share it with them, a time when in fact I wouldn’t have known who they were at all. We message each other almost every day. Our friendship is central to my life.

I’m telling you this because I’m certain this thirty-year friendship affected the way I read this book. Fiona and Jane is the story of two Chinese-American girls; eventually we learn of their childhood and their adulthood, but the story is not told chronologically. Fiona and Jane is billed as a linked short-story collection but it works better if you think of it as a novel told in vignettes. Most of the chapters would feel slightly empty as standalone stories. But read one after another, they build a resonance from callbacks to and echoes of previous scenes. We learn early on that Jane is the daughter of immigrants, with a deeply religious mother and a father forced to move back to Taiwan to provide for the family. Fiona immigrates to the United States with her mother; she does not know her father. She has been spoiled by her Chinese grandparents but in the U. S. she and her mother — and, later, her stepfather and younger brother — are often scraping by. Fiona and Jane say they are friends, best friends, but they hold each other at arm’s length. The characters reflect, often, on how long it has been since they have spoken.

Without knowing anything about the author’s biography, it’s tempting to read this book as a novelization of her own life. Her first name is Jean, which lines up so nicely with Jane; and all of the chapters about Jane are told in the first person, whereas all the chapters about Fiona are in the third person. Jane is a writer, and I read the chapters about Fiona as written by Jane, in an attempt to understand her missing friend. Even in stories that are Fiona’s alone, Jane always seems to be lurking just offstage, perhaps taking notes.

But you don’t have to read this as autofiction to recognize that Fiona and Jane is ultimately Jane’s story. The novel is bookended by two critical moments in her life: the first, a visit to her father in Taiwan, which ends in a revelation and a mistake that Jane will regret for years; the last, two decades later, when she finds a way to exorcise her guilt and come to terms with both of her parents. Fiona’s life seems more eventful — romantic complications, marriage, career shifts — but it’s Jane I was drawn to. Bereft of Fiona, Jane seems lost and lonely. And Jane cannot move on from the exclusivity of the friendship, even when Fiona seems to have other interests, other priorities, other people who take precedence over Jane:

The strange feeling I’d had earlier—the one I couldn’t place, when Fiona said she and Won had kissed—came over me again. My throat tightened. I’d thought it was jealousy before, and I’d crushed it down inside of me, ashamed. I didn’t want to be jealous of Fiona. Sure, there was plenty to envy about her, but I’d never felt anything close to competition between us. Until tonight. Until I learned she’d kept a secret from me. 

But it wasn’t jealousy. It was the shock of grief, that we didn’t share everything, no matter how much I wanted to believe we could. And now I held my own secret with Won, with Fiona on the outside of it.

At the end of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You the two main characters end arm-in-arm. “If you weren’t my friend, I wouldn’t know who I was,” one says, and the other agrees: “I wouldn’t know who I was either.” That’s how I feel about my besties, too, and how I think they feel about me. Fiona, though? She makes mistakes but she knows who she is, with or without Jane. This isn’t a book about two best friends, not really. It’s a book about two childhood friends who have to figure out their places in each other’s lives when childhood is over.

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