Myla Goldberg is going to be at the Wisconsin Book Festival this Friday evening. So I read her newest novel, The False Friend just in time.
Celia, the main character, is walking to work one day in Chicago when she is overtaken by a vivid memory of the last time she saw her best friend Djuna. They had a temperamental friendship; close as twins one day, fighting like cats and dogs the next. Djuna was new to town, a beautiful 11-year-old, with a stylish way, and magnetic personality. She befriends Celia immediately and the two are soon the clique that everyone wants join. But membership, as always with these things, came at a price. You had to look a certain way and wear the right clothes, as all cliques seem to require. And Djuna put the applicants through the ringer before they would be accepted. And Celia didn’t always agree.
So Celia’s memory, this last day they were together; while walking with other friends along a road beside a haunted forest, in the heat of a violent argument, Djuna veers off into the forest and disappears down a sink-hole. So angry at her friend, and the only witness, Celia reports that Djuna got into a car driven by a man. Though the incident happened over 20 years ago, Celia decides she must tell the truth and make amends.
She goes home to her upstate New York hometown and begins her painful atonement by confessing to her parents. But they don't believe her. They had been part of the complete manhunt in that forest after the incident which produced no evidence of Djuna being there, no existence of a sink hole or abandoned well. That doesn’t stop Celia; her memory is so clear she is certain she is right. So she looks up the friends who had been with her that day to confess to them, and get their impressions. And again, they don't agree. Djuna actually got into that car. And one of her old friends refuses to see her. Not taking no for an answer, Celia goes to Leanne’s house, only to be met by Leanne’s brother, who painstakingly reveals to Celia the person she was at 11.
I was drawn in to this novel from the first page. Goldberg has a gentle way with her characters, gracefully drawing the complexities in all of them. She shows how easy it is for us to turn back into the children we were when we return to our childhood home. Celia’s parents are especially well-drawn; neither likes to confront reality head-on and they were tormented by the off-handed way they dealt with Celia after Djuna’s disappearance yet they're relieved that she turned out so well. Mostly Goldberg captures how ruthless young girls can be with each other. With all the focus on bullying these days, this book is very timely.