The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, review by Bruce Jacobs
The fiction of marriage and family would fill several libraries, but outside of YA novels, that of "best friends" still occupies a rather small shelf. Rufi Thorpe's debut novel about two lifelong girlfriends is a grown-up look at how difficult but rewarding such a close connection can be. Mia, the adult narrator of The Girls from Corona del Mar, and Lorrie Ann are inseparable adolescent buddies in a middle-class Southern California coastal town, "half-empty, somewhat decayed," before it becomes SoCal with "young women pushing Bugaboo strollers in Lululemon yoga pants, flaunting their post-partum tummy tucks." Mia's mother drinks, her father has run off to San Francisco, and she aborts a pregnancy at age 15 with Lorrie Ann's help. Comparing herself to Lorrie Ann's kindhearted beauty and seemingly solid close family, Mia decides, "I was the bad one... the only one who had routinely shoplifted from Victoria's Secret... and knew all the words to every song by Sublime."
But then life gets in the way of friendship, as it so often does. Lorrie Ann becomes pregnant, marries the simple but stable father and has a difficult childbirth that yields a son stricken with cerebral palsy. Mia wins a scholarship to Yale, finds a satisfying talent for classical languages and falls in love with a fellow scholar with whom she travels to Istanbul to co-translate cuneiform poetry about the Sumerian goddess Inanna. The girlfriends halfheartedly continue to follow each other with occasional Skype calls, but Lorrie Ann's unraveling life is a distant background noise to Mia's happiness--until Lorrie Ann shows up in Istanbul barefoot, emaciated and addicted to heroin. Mia is stunned: "Here was the goddess I had so championed, right there at my kitchen table. And she was a junkie."
Thorpe dives deep into the tangled and sometimes tenuous bonds of friendship, unafraid to address the intermittent jealousy, sarcasm and hurt that often work to weaken the glue holding friends together. The Girls from Corona del Mar also fearlessly addresses the difficult decisions many women face (regarding abortion, marriage, child-rearing, professional success and physical self-abuse) while recognizing that these are often more about fate than choice. Although Mia "still wanted there to be some connection between what we did and what we got," in the end she accepts that making choices is frequently just doing the best one can with what life delivers. It is a testament to the nuance of Thorpe's fine treatment of her characters and their friendship that we come to the same conclusion.