The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, book review: An uneasy look at messy love

 

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This debut from Rufi Thorpe grips immediately, with the sharp compelling pressure of a friend grabbing your hand in pain. And that is what the novel is, in essence: a brilliantly written, probing, uneasy look at a damaged friendship between two women – and how such intense relationships are as much about how we define ourselves as they are about our love for, and struggle to understand, another human being.

Mia is our grown-up narrator, looking back at her life with Lorrie Ann, her best friend since their childhood in California in the Nineties.

Lorrie Ann was beautiful, intelligent, and, most of all, good. “There was no girl more perfect than Lorrie Ann Swift, not so much because she was extraordinary, but because she was ordinary in a way that surpassed us,” observes Mia on the first page, an early indicator that Thorpe is extremely adroit at re-entering the mind of a teenager.  Mia, by contrast, was the bad girl: “Sexy … wily ... sarcastic.” Until a run of unbelievable ill luck sends Lorrie Ann on a downward spiral, that seems sure to end in self-destruction (it is a testament to Thorpe’s writing that although calamities – death, deformity, drugs – are recounted with operatic swiftness, the reader does actually find them believable).

The Girls ... is hard-going in its portrayal of the lot of women: motherhood is particularly fraught. Abortions haunt characters; birthing scenes are grimly visceral. Yet while motherhood may be a burden, it can also be a salvation, and while Thorpe convincingly expresses both sides, it’s pretty clear which one she comes down on.

Thorpe’s writing can be uniquely beautiful, with images that make you want to clasp the book to your chest: a lover makes Mia wish her stony heart was “made of something else: bunny rabbit essence, perhaps, or pixie dust and nougat”; Lorrie Ann sings “as though the notes were all wineglasses falling but never hitting the floor”.

The novel is a slippery description of a friendship: there’s jealousy, fault-lines of guilt and love. Lorrie Ann often seems to matter to Mia because of how Mia defines herself against her, her “opposite twin”.

But while this friendship may be high-octane, Thorpe also proves the importance of early, primary relationships between girls. She is ferociously committed to honestly recreating that multi-faceted, fierce, judgemental, messy love.

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