Is it possible to outgrow your best friend? Or can you grow together?
This is the tension at the heart of Rumaan Alam's debut novel "Rich And Pretty," which follows two thirtysomething besties, Sarah and Lauren, as their lives diverge along two incredibly different paths.
Sarah, a rich daughter of a prominent Republican and a socialite, is planning what will hopefully be her dream wedding. Lauren, a middle-class girl from New Jersey, floats from one relationship to another while stagnating as an associate editor at a publishing house. Their decades-long relationship started at a posh New York City school at age 11 when the world was much smaller. The book explores whether yet another round of major life changes plunge the final wedge between the women.
I met Alam for coffee on Wednesday to talk about the state of his friendships, how becoming a parent changed his view of relationships and the freedom in not writing a Minority Novel™.
CC: Why did you decide to focus on friendship in the thirties? Because the default seems to be that when people write about female friendships that the books are about younger women.
RA: You’re a younger woman now and I think there’s less pressure on you, I hope, to get married right now. I think it’s a pressure that tends to kick in, at least among this class of people, when you’re in your thirties. You hear it from your parents and your grandparents and your peers just as our mothers did, but you just hear it a little bit later. That was the period of time that was most interesting to me was when those external pressures kick in. It’s like a second round of growing up.
CC: You’ve said this is not a coming-of-age book because in your thirties you should already be grown.
RA: Yeah, and you are. You have a job, you pay your rent, you’re a grownup in many ways. Certainly something like getting married or having a child is not what makes you into an adult, but it is a component of adulthood and that’s what was interesting to me.
CC: Sarah and Lauren's paths are very different, with different components of adulthood. I really liked that they both had endings that felt appropriate, both of their choices were treated as valid by you, even if not by each other.
RA: Yes, everyone has their own way of making their way through life. I wanted to avoid the best I could in making a value judgment. I wanted to show these are two different people who did two different things and they butt up against each other because they're frustrated with the way the other is not adhering to their own expectations for life. But there’s no right or wrong way to be. And that hopefully the intimacy that held them together would endure regardless of what they chose to do as adults.
CC: Do you have a friend that you’ve been close with that long?
RA: I do not. No, I don’t. Frankly, I’m really puzzled and amazed when people have these friendships from childhood. They were 11 when they meet and that is so young. If you met an 11-year-old now, you would just be so weirded out by how young that is. And of course, your whole life, you think of yourself as being old, probably until you’re 40 and then you start to realize how immature you were. I could just picture them so clearly as young girls feeling like they knew everything. But no, I don’t know anyone that I knew a child anymore. I can’t think of anyone.
CC: Do you think friendships are meant to last that long?
RA: I don’t know if I do and I don’t think it matters if they don’t. If your friendship does not endure, I don’t think it means that it was meaningless. Some people seem to take it on as a challenge or pressure to keep alive an intimacy that they may have outgrown. And when you’re talking about a romantic relationship, that can also be difficult to end. But presumably you get to a point where you say, “Okay, this is over. I’m done with this. I’ve grown past it.”
CC: There seems to be more definable goals with romantic relationships, though.
RA: Because you’re working toward, probably, getting married for most people. But with friends, it’s harder to say what the goal is. So, no, I’ve not had a friendship like that. I know people who do and I’m quite amused it.
A lot of friendships have this element of utter randomness. In the book, one of Dan’s friends who became a lifelong friend just because someone in the admissions office decided they should be roommates in college. You have a friend from childhood simply because your mothers were friends. A lot of it works that way. When I think about my friends now, it’s because I lived in a certain dorm as a freshman, I know you now 18 years later and I’m going to your wedding. That’s kind of insane. Obviously, you have a lot in common with those people demographically so a certain level of intimacy makes sense but it’s chemistry and it’s mysterious.
CC: One thing that really struck me about the book's friendship was how much each woman assumed the other person was thinking of them where they’re both actually just wrapped up in being their own person. It made the context of planning a wedding that much more fraught.
RA: I think when you’re getting married is a time when you’re sort of licensed by society to be a little self-involved. But you’re right in that part of their fundamental disconnection is this sense of “Well, why don’t you know me better?” or “Why aren’t you thinking about how I feel about something?” But nobody knows each other that way. In your own mind, you’re always the star of the show. I think that may be informed by having children because my children, like all children, are egotists. They’re the utter center of everything in the universe. They’re too young to have any concept of 'There are other people with feelings.' I think that is a part of where they are locked into.
CC: I kept coming back to the idea in the book that maybe Sarah and Lauren should stop calling each other. Like, just call the whole thing off and only see each other at Christmas.
RA: I don’t know if maybe they should just stop calling each other. In some ways, they’re equally invested, but that’s an impossible question to answer. Because in some ways I thought I would have the answer at the end of the book and I didn’t. I thought the book would end with more clarity. But I don’t think it does. It really is an open question about whether their relationship will endure in the way it has for all those decades.
CC: I noticed you thanked Mira Jacob in your acknowledgements and I loved her book, “The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing.” It's this uniquely South Asian book I had never gotten to read before. But then there’s you writing a book not about any of those things. I really loved that you got to to write a book that didn’t have to do with your heritage.
RA: Mira is so wonderful and so talented and I love her novel so much. We've talked about what kind of expectations readers and publishers and critics have when they look at you when you look the way that you do. Her book is amazing and I'm sure she is, rightly, really proud of it, but in her new book that she's working on now, she's essentially blowing it up and doing something radically different. I think it's out a desire to do something that really transcends the expectation of The Establishment or let's call it The Man.
I similarly felt I had to desire to do something that was not what you would expect of me based on what I look like or what my name is. The irony being that I’m actually much closer to this story of upper-middle class white women than I would be to a story about immigrants from Bangladesh, which is where my parents are from, by virtue of how I lived my life. There’s a lot of expectations on writers—I hate the word "minority" because it never seems like the right word—but on writers who are brown, on writers who are different that what they’re going to write is going to cover the universal truth of all people who look like them. And that’s such a fallacy! You don’t have to be a reader who is black to read the work of a writer who is black. And if you’re a writer who is black, you don’t have only write about black people. I wanted to push back against The Man.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. “Rich And Pretty” is available now from Ecco.
Caitlin is the associate features editor at Fusion. Prior to Fusion, she worked on features and national affairs at Talking Points Memo and completed an investigative fellowship at The Seattle Times. Will listen to any and all Grey's Anatomy theories.