Are All Female Friends Really Frenemies?

I'm So Happy For You, a new novel by novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld, makes female friendships seem like a supremely unpleasant, never-ending status game.

Heroine Wendy Murman is an editor at a leftist magazine, living with her husband in Brooklyn and struggling to conceive. Her best friend Daphne is a flighty, self-absorbed, semi-employed beauty who shocks Wendy when she ditches her unreliable married boyfriend for a hot, successful arch-conservative named Jonathan. Soon Daphne is married, pregnant, and installed in a beautiful house, and Wendy is beside herself with envy.

A little jealousy is certainly normal, but Rosenfeld paints the relationship between Wendy and Daphne — and indeed, between Wendy and all of her girlfriends — as so negative and competitive that you wonder why any of these people spend time together. Her e-mail exchanges with frenemy Paige are unrealistically bitchy, as when Paige writes,

Meanwhile — f.y.i. — I just read a very interesting article about infertility among women in our age group. It turns out that most of the issues (tube blockage, lack of cervical fluid, etc.) have their origin in STDs. Which is not to say you have one. Still, it might be worth checking.

Wendy begins the novel by wearily disregarding Daphne's threat of suicide, seems to find her conversation annoying, takes every interaction they have as a chance to compare herself to Daphne and find herself wanting, and remembers countless times throughout their friendship when Daphne has let her down. She recalls, for instance, the night her first boyfriend dumped her, when Daphne promised that they could "go to the movies 'and forget about all [their] guy problems." Instead,

An hour later, Daphne was putting on her coat and saying, "I totally forgot I said I'd meet Josh. Are you going to be okay if I go out for a few hours? I promise I'll be back soon." (Face squinched up.)

Face squinched up? Given this and basically every other scene between Wendy and Daphne, it's hard to see why Wendy doesn't just find better friends — or at least friends who make her feel better.

Unless Rosenfeld's point is that female friendship is inherently toxic. She says on her website, "every woman has a Daphne in her life — a so-called "best friend" whose seemingly effortless successes never fail to make her feel like a Huge Loser." Really? Everyone has a best friend so fake she deserves quotes? And for whom her jealousy outweighs her joy? Sadly, reviewers seem to concur. Publishers' Weekly calls I'm So Happy For You "a dark, hilarious and painfully accurate view of the less-than-pure reasons why women stay friends." And Zoe Heller calls it "a finely observed and witty account of the jealousies that lurk within even the kindest female hearts."

Rosenfeld's Double X advice column, Friend or Foe (tagline: "Boys are easy. Friendships are hard.") adds fuel to the girlfriends-totally-suck fire. Her most recent column implies that a friend's disappearance after the birth of a child must be the result of envy. She also writes about dangerous friend archetypes like the "Instant Best Friend" who dumps you at the slightest provocation (and who quite easily recognizes herself and lashes back in the comments!), or the "Time Energy Suck [...] who dins and sniffles in your ear for hours at a time about first dates who never called again and ex-lovers with whom she broke up eight years ago-'it's just still so hard.'" Friendships can be hard, but are they really so hard that we need names for different bad ones? Doesn't this just perpetuate a sad stereotype of women as catty bitches who undermine each other?

There is, however, a slightly more hopeful way to interpret all this. As Wendy descends further and further into insane jealousy of Daphne, her husband Adam offers this explanation of her behavior:

You're never satisfied. That's just who you are. You felt deprived as a child, and there's nothing anyone can do to make it up to you. You could marry Bill Gates and still think you were getting fucked over.

It's harsh, but also feels true — a lot of Wendy's problems seem to come from her constant sense of being worse off than others, and her inability to appreciate what she has. Only when she stops comparing herself to Daphne can she finally be happy. It is possible to read I'm So Happy For You as a cautionary tale against the kind of jealousy that makes every baby, every relationship, every apartment, every job into a mere data point in a constant status accounting. If it's Rosenfeld's point that this is no way to live your life, more power to her. But why does she have to make it sound like every woman lives this way?
I'm So Happy For You
I'm So Happy For You [Official Site]
Friend Or Foe [Double X]