Best Friends Forever
nolead ends nolead begins By Jennifer Weiner

Atria. 362 pp. $26.99

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan

I'm not lending this book to anybody. It's a keeper.

Usually I'm pretty generous with books, if for no other reason than household safety. As a regular book reviewer, I get upward of 100 new books a week delivered to my small rowhouse. Fast friends and sunshine acquaintances are always sniffing around the wobbly stacks of review copies in my home office and basement.

But they'll just have to support the arts and go out and buy their own copy of Jennifer Weiner's latest novel, Best Friends Forever. It's not leaving the special shelf where it's already wedged in with other books I reread every so often because they just make me happy - novels such as Jeanette Haien's Matters of Chance, Susan Isaacs' Shining Through, Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, most of Barbara Pym's novels, and, of course, Pride and Prejudice.

What most of these and the other novels on that shelf have in common is that they're smart, witty fairy tales for grown-ups. Bad things may happen to the flawed heroines or heroes of these stories, but, in the end, the deserving dark horse triumphs and things turn out grand.

Most of Weiner's previous novels and short stories have fit this plot profile, but what sets Best Friends Forever apart from its predecessors and earns it a place on my treasured "reread as needed" shelf is its tough emotional wisdom. If there are any doubts that a work of mere "chick lit" can be deeply revelatory, Best Friends Forever should banish them.

It goes without saying that this novel is also very funny. Weiner has made her literary mark by generating a wry, roll-of-the-eyeballs attitude toward elusive boyfriends, intrusive helicopter moms, haughty health-club staff, and the countless other walking torments that populate her heroines' suburban landscapes.

Our battle-scarred heroine here, however, has only recently begun to venture out again from her childhood split-level home. When the novel opens, 32-year-old Addie Downs has just returned from yet another blind date courtesy of the Internet. (The loser du jour confessed over dinner that he'd been violated by space aliens.)

Because Addie lives such a solitary life - her parents are dead, she works at home making paintings to be turned into greeting cards, and she's currently "friend-free" - she printed out a note and taped it to her fridge before she left for the aforesaid doomed date. The text, in full, conveys Addie's bruised-but-droll worldview. It reads: "I WENT TO MEET MATTHEW SHARP ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 23. IF ANYTHING HAPPENED TO ME, IT'S PROBABLY HIS FAULT. . . . . P.S.: I WOULD LIKE A MILITARY FUNERAL."

Addie, however, is not destined to remain alone that evening. Even as she's snuggling into post-date flannel pajamas, a knock comes at the door. It's her old best friend, Valerie Adler, whom Addie hasn't seen in 15 years, since they both were seniors in high school.

Valerie, who's blond, thin, and gorgeous, is now a weathergirl on TV and has just come from the local high school reunion - the reunion that Addie resolutely avoided. Valerie is wearing a bloodstained coat and is concerned that she might have (accidentally on purpose) fatally run over the class' former football hunk after enticing him to take off his pants in a parking lot.

"Please help me," the long-lost Valerie pleads. "You broke my heart" is the bitter accusation that rises to Addie's lips. But, in a gesture that affirms enduring female solidarity over historical memory, Addie gets into Valerie's waiting Jaguar and the two ride off on an excursion backward into their shared past, as well as into a present-time comical riff on Thelma and Louise.

Since Weiner's narrative jumps around in terms of chronology and point of view, the story, as it evolves, complicates a reader's first impressions, particularly of Addie. Sure, she's pleasant-looking now, but how would she have struck even the most sympathetic of onlookers a few years ago, when she weighed about 350 pounds and found herself helplessly stuck inside a booth in the town diner?

Slowly, within the main "crime" story, Weiner intersperses flashbacks to Addie's shy childhood and to the joy she felt on the day Valerie moved in across the street. The daily ebbs and flows of intense adolescent girl friendship are rendered here with wince-inducing precision. Then, in an act of loyalty that backfires, Addie loses Valerie to the clique of sleek, cool kids. After a few more years, a few personal tragedies, and a lot more pounds, Addie is a recluse, all belief in life's possibilities vanished.

Addie is one of the most compelling "nice girls" popular literature has ever produced. And because Weiner understandably loves her own creation, she grants her the gift of a redeeming "second act."

Addie's story rates a second (and, perhaps, even a third) read, too, because its unrelenting depiction of loneliness, as well as the myriad ways people can surprise themselves and each other, deserves to be savored, again and again.