Virginia Woolf famously complained that there were too few novels about women’s “relationships” with other women. Her point, which has its own chapter in A Room of One’s Own (1929), is that plots involving women have, “almost without exception,” hung on their ties to men. She imagines taking a new novel off the shelf at random, by a debut author she names Mary Carmichael, to see what might have changed now that more women are writing:
To begin with, I ran my eye up and down the page. I am going to get the hang of her sentences first, I said, before I load my memory with blue eyes and brown and the relationship that there may be between Chloe and Roger.
Woolf has “grievances” about the imagined author’s sentences, which she sees as indications of her fledgling uncertainties: “She is like a person striking a match that will not light, I thought. But why, I asked her, as if she were present, are Jane Austen’s sentences not of the right shape for you?” She suspects Carmichael of trying to steer toward an unexpected situation. When she turns the page, she discovers what it is:
“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature…. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends.
In the end Woolf decides that this new novel is not a work of genius: “The effect was somehow baffling; one could not see a wave heaping itself, a crisis coming round the next corner.” Yet she admires Carmichael’s sensibility—“very wide, eager and free”—and leaves us with hope about her imagined author’s future: “She did not do so badly, I thought. Give her another hundred years.”
Woolf seems to have wanted to show how hard it was going to be to pioneer this new territory of Chloe and Olivia, though her critical dismay regarding the author she made up now reads as a little oddly defensive. A century has almost passed, and we are happily in an era not short on tales narrating the complications of female bonds—from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, with their raging intensities, to an engaging first book like Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane, written with the assumption that, sure, Chloe and Olivia like each other plenty, with all the trouble that comes with that.
Ho’s book traces two Taiwanese-American friends who meet in second grade in Los Angeles and are never entirely out of each other’s lives. It consists of ten stories told in alternating voices—Jane’s are mostly in first person, Fiona’s in third. The front cover doesn’t label the book “stories,” a common choice of publishers—a discretion suggesting: it’s like a novel, sort of, if that’s what you want.
Fiona and Jane begins with Jane, who was born in California shortly after her parents moved from Taiwan to the US. Now eighteen years old and a senior in high school, she is visiting her father in Taipei, where he’s been working for the past two and a half years. Jane wants to persuade him to return to LA—but on her last evening, as they tour Shilin Night Market, he tells her the secret of why he’s not coming home: he’s in love with a Taiwanese man he has known since before his marriage to her mother. Jane—who’s done some romantic kissing of her own with her beloved female piano teacher (within view of a giant portrait of Jesus that her mother hung in the living room)—is incensed that he is deserting her. Once home she reveals his secret to her mother and regrets this forever. She never sees her father again.
Fiona, we find out in the next story, has her own lost father. Born in Taiwan with the name Ona, she spends her early childhood there, thinking her father is dead. She remembers her mother, a very young parent described by others as a “widow” and barely solvent in those years, telling her, “You’re my own heart, walking outside of my body.” When Ona is six and her mother just twenty-two, they make a rare visit to her mother’s parents’ apartment in Taipei, where Ona’s grandfather, a professor, whispers to her: “Your father isn’t dead. He’s alive.” He makes Ona promise not to tell her mother what he has said.
Soon after this Ona and her mother move to California, where she becomes known as Fiona when “a white boy in Miss King’s class had declared that Ona wasn’t a real name.” Not until after her grandfather’s death, when Fiona is twenty-two and leaving home herself, does she learn her full origin story from her mother, who at sixteen ran off with a university student—a favorite of Fiona’s grandfather’s. She was brought home and the young man was expelled; he was never told of Fiona’s birth. “Your grandfather decided that was for the best,” her mother tells her. Fiona’s first response to this is outrage—toward her starchy grandfather, her compliant mother, and the father who doesn’t know she exists—but this changes convincingly into gratitude toward her extended family, who have, after all, tried to watch out for her.
When Fiona and Jane encounter each other in elementary school, their shared Taiwanese background draws them together—Fiona as a young child is especially thrilled to have a friend in class who speaks “crooked Mandarin” and can both understand her and show her the new ways: “If not for Jane, she thought, her loneliness might have been unbearable.” From this point on Taiwan’s meaning for both girls is felt most acutely in the strains of its being so distant from the culture they’re in. Jane’s mother tells her husband in Taipei that Jane is “one hundred percent American, like it or not.”
The time span we see Fiona and Jane run through is a little more than twenty years. Writing in stories instead of a novel gives Ho a way to cover long spells, in leaps and switchbacks, without worrying about the gaps. The linked story form has always been well suited to these rhythms. From Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid (1979) to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2008), what I think of as the biographical model—a book that seems to follow a life’s progress—is carried well in story sequences. The rise-and-fall energy of each story serves the material without forcing a novel’s overarching unity of cause and effect.
But narrative suspense has to come from something. Ho’s source is the self-invention of her characters. (I would like to permanently retire the term “coming of age,” which posits an age of social completion, a secretly conservative idea.) While these characters are ever concerned with their own happiness, I was most interested in the continuing tests of their loyalties, the moral risks they run.
Secrets and betrayals resound through many of the stories, and characters sometimes agonize about their lesser failings and dismiss their graver ones. Jane’s outing of her father—which both parents have told her was no big deal—has terrible echoes. Jane never forgives him for living a continent away. Several years later, after a further move to Shanghai, with phone calls to Jane declined and messages unanswered, he dies alone by suicide in his apartment. Jane will only say to her lover, Carly, that “he passed away”—no cause given. “I didn’t tell her I hadn’t cried once, not since he died.”
A premise of Fiona and Jane is that friendships can continue through long lapses and “dormant” stages. The middle stories follow the two women separately: Fiona graduates from college and moves to New York, while Jane stays in LA. They have, of course, romances to occupy them. Fiona has a number of difficult boyfriends, including one who gets her to care for his sick best friend and another who steals money from her and then runs off to Hong Kong. Jane’s attractions are to women but not always. She has a long list of “Korean Boys I’ve Loved,” including an attractive dentist whose Rolex watch she steals.
Jane also spends quite a bit of time with her friend Won—a gay Korean-American guy who’s been buddies with Jane and Fiona since second grade. In “Cold Turkey,” a twenty-six-year-old Jane is coached by Won in how to get over Carly, a white woman she’s still crazy about; the breakup was caused by Jane slapping Carly for calling her mother an ignorant bigot. Running alongside this breakup are Jane’s back-and-forth standing jokes with Won, now a chic hairdresser, who keeps merrily planning their marriage while berating her for “always trying to get me in bed.”
Won’s breakup coaching also includes a notebook he commands Jane to write in. Jane will, in fact, become a writer, a plot development that is nicely underplayed until its emergence at the book’s close. Our eye is instead on the rips and repairs of the characters’ bonds and the omnipresent issues of family.
Jane and Fiona are aware of their traditional obligations to their mothers and usually act on them. “As her daughter I had certain responsibilities,” Jane explains to Carly. “I showed up. I had to. There was no one else.” And there’s a sad scene of Jane trimming her aging mother’s toenails and washing her feet. Fiona, at the time of her college graduation, chooses to give her mother half of the sum she has just inherited from the grandfather she hasn’t seen since childhood—“a graduation gift from me.” Battles between the new world and the old are not the crucial conflicts here. Jane and Fiona’s values are largely of their own time and place.
There’s also an endearing sexual boldness in Fiona and Jane. These are Western women who grew up in the Nineties. In high school Won—who they don’t yet know is gay—tells Jane “he heard Taiwanese girls had stanky pussies. ‘Wouldn’t you like to find out,’ I retorted.” Fiona, in later years, recalls a cool New York bar with a ten-foot Buddha next to the coat check where she and her friend Tish “told each other that rubbing the Buddha’s big toe meant good luck—that you’d find excellent dick that night.” In LA, Won mocks Jane for being a lesbian—“‘I don’t know how you do all that shit anyway. It looks so scary, all that skin, like it’s about to attack you.’ He clawed the air with his hands in loose fists, fingers half-curled, as if defending himself against a predator.” It’s a vibrant, sexually active world these friendships are acted out in.
In a later story in the collection, there’s a hidden offense that almost breaks the long ties. After Fiona moves back to Los Angeles Jane starts hanging out with Fiona’s new husband, and they become so chummy that he tells her when he’s had an affair. Jane doesn’t tell Fiona until much later, while helping her move into a new apartment after she and her husband have split. “So you helped him lie to me?” Fiona says, furious.
“I wasn’t helping him lie,” I said. “I was trying to protect you—”
“Protect me?” she cried. “I don’t need you to protect me, Jane. I need you to tell me the truth.” She shook her head. “What’s wrong with you?”
Jane’s agony and contriteness make her want to plead for a reconciliation. After leaving Fiona’s apartment, she heads home and sits in the driveway for a moment with the engine idling. Then:
I put the car in reverse, and I traced the same route I’d just traveled, back to my best friend. I practiced what I wanted to say. I’m sorry. I was wrong. We’ll get through this….
Fiona’s transgression is a sadder one. The history of their friendship includes her disappearing at a crucial time of need, and even after Fiona’s return to California, Jane has resentful memories of her neglect. In the book’s last story, Jane meets an erstwhile buddy of Fiona’s husband at a party and slips off into the night with him. They have a long-running affair. He’s an ex-marine and not doing well, post-combat. He speaks of wanting to disappear. Fiona tells Jane that her solicitous interest in this possibly suicidal guy is an attempt at a “do-over” of her father’s suicide, which “wasn’t your fault.”
Jane in turn upbraids Fiona bitterly for leaving her alone in that long-ago grief. What Jane regrets most keenly is telling the secret of his being gay to the rest of the family, though her later refusals to have any contact seem more remiss. She attributes all of it to trepidation about her own sexuality, a panic that doesn’t quite fit with the Jane we’ve seen. There’s a bit of moral confusion here, but Fiona’s noisy claim that the suicide was not Jane’s “fault” sounds right enough.
The suicide, though it happens offstage, is a matter of greater weight than the other elements in these stories; it’s a collection whose one frailty is its moderate scale of consequence. Emotional accuracy lights up the work nonetheless; no false claims are made, and readers may well be glad its likable characters are safe.
Throughout the book, Fiona and Jane are improvising their fates in a bumbling progress of trial and error. We see that most vividly in my favorite of the stories, “Go Slow,” which depicts them as teenagers and is narrated by Jane: “The year we turned sixteen, Fiona decided it was time we learned to drink.”
Ho’s writing evokes youthful folly, ever glorious and stupid, with a shadow of later awareness in the prose. Fiona has an old car, a hoopty they call Shamu, and Won knows a place that will serve them alcohol without even looking at their “janky IDs.” They get to find out what being drunk is—they like it—and after shared tacos in the car, the night ends in a drive to the beach. Nestled in the back seat, Jane thinks of
a Bible story from years back, when I used to go to church with my parents, before Baba moved back to Taiwan. Jonah trapped inside the whale, waiting for God to rescue him…. Here with Fiona and Won, I didn’t want to be saved. I made a silent wish to stay like this forever, the three of us, perfect.
Other nights follow, as the three laugh it up and nurse and cheer each other on through barfing—“a ritual we repeated, week after week; if it wasn’t so gross, you might’ve called it religious, transcendent.” Jane’s insistence on the joy of this is really the heart of the book. Which brings us back to the question of friendship as subject matter. What determines the stakes of any story is the writer’s belief about what counts, what lasts. Ho tells us Fiona and Jane are ordinary friends—no high drama or wild heroics—but the endurance of these bonds shows their sustaining power. Time is the measure.