“Every friendship is, if not one-sided, then asymetrical or imbalanced,” says Lauren Mechling, whose new novel, “How Could She,” charts the dramas, intrigues and betrayals that unfold between three female friends in New York. The book is both juicy — ripe with backstabbing, adultery and acerbic gossip — and deeply empathetic. It’s also a spot-on look at the waning days of the magazine world, a space that Mechling herself is quite familiar with; her resume includes stints at The Wall Street Journal and as a senior editor at Vogue.
“How Could She” introduces us to a trio of women in their late thirties: Sunny, a columnist and artist; Geraldine, who has moved from Toronto to New York with bold dreams of breaking into podcasting; and Rachel, an editor at the fictional culture and lifestyle magazine Cassette and a young-adult writer who is pivoting into the fantasy literature market.
The novel questions and disturbs our assumptions about these characters. Could Sunny, who seemingly has it all, actually be wallowing in a deep pool of despair? Is Geraldine a vulnerable emotional wreck, or a canny ladder-climber who might end up as everyone’s boss? And is Rachel — a former journalism prodigy now struggling with family and finances — a concerned bystander, or merely an envious underminer? “Each person has drawn the portrait of the other that they hold in their heads, and it’s not very flexible,” Mechling tells me when we meet up at a Park Slope cafe. “They have a really hard time not viewing each other as who they thought they were when they were 24-years-old.”
The author writes beautifully about the fluctuations and complexities of female friendship. Women are the stars here, and their men — husbands, ex-fiancées, roommates — are more or less window dressing. “They’re like paper-doll characters on the side,” Mechling shrugs. “Sorry…” As a man reading “How Could She,” I certainly wasn’t offended by the cursory treatment of my gender — but I was frankly jealous of the emotional intensity that Mechling sketches between her three protagonists, a bond that is no less romantic for being platonic. (It’s an intensity she explored in a more autobiographical manner for a recent New York Times essay on how to break up with your friends.)
Before I sat down with the author in person, I couldn’t help but do a bit of sneaky Google research; fiction is fiction, but I was curious as to which of her three leads she might most resemble. My guess was Rachel — arguably the novel’s most nuanced character and the one most bogged down in life’s mundane cruelties — and it is indeed the character that Mechling finds the most affinity with. Rachel’s simmering sense of class bitterness feels familiar — especially in New York, where even close friendships can skirt over awkward economic realities (the wealthy partner, the trust fund, the parent-bought brownstone). “It’s just not fair that Rachel is spinning her wheels,” admits Mechling. “I feel like she’s the hardest working of the three. She has two jobs, plus the child — and then she’s seeing other people who float up and up.”
Like Rachel, Mechling is a mother and was once a young-adult novelist, the author of books with names like “The Rise and Fall of a 10th-Grade Social Climber.” Before embarking on “How Could She,” Mechling tells me she had completed an ambitious, and seemingly unpublishable, Y.A. epic. (Apparently the major houses weren’t ready for the tale of “trafficked Italian fortune-teller sisters who get brought from their small town in Italy to a house of Russian gangsters in Chicago.”) Smarting over the lack of interest in that project, Mechling regrouped and eventually started working on a piece of fiction that was entirely fresh.
She aimed to “write the book I wanted to read,” she says, envisioning something offbeat and quirky. “I was pretty certain, but resigned, that it might also be the book that no one else wanted,” Mechling tells me. “But life’s too short. There was this mounting obsession within me about women and friendship and social leapfrogging. I just wanted to give it a shot. I had a picture in my head of what it would look like: this strange, miniature art-catalog book that women would pass to each other. I didn’t think it was going to be a ‘summer read’ that people all over the country would click with.”
“How Could She” was ostensibly the first novel Mechling had written for an adult audience, but she still found some of her Y.A. toolkit to be useful. “There’s a similar sense of humor and a similar attention to pacing,” she says. “This is a short book, short chapters — I tried to make it move along in a way that I’d been trained to do by writing Y.A. fiction. There’s no room for meandering. But my attitude was really different. I was doing this for myself, versus trying to be clever within a market that I thought I had a chance to make a living in.”
The passion project turned out to have real potential, unsurprisingly. Mechling’s prose is smart and punchy, her plotting airtight. A former fashion editor is described as “a fixture on the smug-people circuit”; Sunny’s social circle includes “a sloe-eyed handbag designer who had just spent her fiftieth birthday surfing in Uruguay.” Rachel, on a date night with her husband, wistfully reflects on their past: “Back when she’d met Matt, her fantasies were about sex. Her dreams now were of stillness. Well, that and money. But weren’t they the same thing?”
Equally important, Mechling writes about disparate scenes and subcultures in a way that feels authentic and earned. Sunny’s delusions of art world grandeur are painful to behold; she’s somewhat of a hack, yet she convinces herself that it’s her own choice not to be staging solo shows at plum venues like the Drawing Center. A digression into the world of Y.A. fiction conferences is especially memorable (including a cameo from the pervy author of a made-up series, “Fart Academy.”) And Mechling’s evocation of the current state of print media could only have been written by an insider; it’s a morass of low morale, where laid-off thirtysomething editors compete for corporate content-writing scraps.
I asked Mechling about the title of the book, which is curious in its own way: that lack of a question mark, for instance. (“It could be interpreted positively,” she notes. “She could!”) “How Could She” sets the reader up to expect one chief villianness, one climactic betrayal. Instead, “they’re all constantly doing terrible things,” the author says. “If you look at the three womens’ trajectories — each of them, she could make something better, or overcome some mounting unhappiness with her lot in life. In the end — even if their fortunes rise and fall — they’re all a little more centered, a little less out-of-focus to themselves.”
Despite the fallout of the plot — a bit of divorce, a Canadian emigration, love interests tested and abandoned — “How Could She” proves that there was something worthwhile about this three-way friendship. Geraldine launches a podcast with a twenty-something co-host, Sylvie, who dismisses her bickering friends as “supes toxic.” Geraldine, wiser than when the book began, thinks that’s too simplistic. “It would be another ten years at least,” Mechling writes, “until Sylvie realized that the mediocre, imperfect people she’d happened to align herself with would end up being more significant to her than she could possibly fathom.”
Top Image: Book jacket for Lauren Mechling's "How Could She," June 25, 2019. Photo: Nina Subin.