Whether they’re expected or not, houseguests often add intrigue and excitement to a novel. For The Guardian, author Jessica Francis Kane (who recently spoke to The Millions about her fourth book, Rules for Visiting) lists some of her favorite houseguests in literature, including King Lear, Jane Bennet, and more. “Allegedly there are only two kinds of story: someone goes on a journey, or someone comes to town. Either way the person has to stay somewhere, so the houseguest story is everywhere once you start looking for it.”
May Attaway—the protagonist of Jessica Francis Kane’s fourth book, Rules for Visiting—is not your usual middle-aged woman: She prefers plants over people, and at 40 years old, is still living with her father in her childhood home in Anneville. As a professional gardener at the local university, May lives out most of her existence toiling over trimmings and maintaining a safe distance from others. The premature death of a stranger, the flurry of heartfelt online tributes to this stranger and her generosity toward others, and an unexpected paid leave of 30 days forces May to look at the lack of friendship in her life. And so, she plans a trip to visit four friends from different parts of her life: Lindy, a childhood friend; Vanessa, a friend she met in the eighth grade; Neera, a college friend; and Rose, who was in May’s graduate landscape-architecture program. In preparation for her trip, May purchases a new rolling suitcase and names it Grendel, after the friendless monster in Beowulf.
Recently, contemporary literature has seen a multitude of novels and stories—such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl—exploring the theme of female friendship. Kane’s novel joins these ranks but, at the same time, the narrative shines as a singular story of one woman’s journey away—and toward—herself and others. With each excursion, the reader can’t help but quietly root for May Attaway as she seeks to rekindle friendships from years past and, later, makes an attempt at romance. An extra bonus: A handful of beautiful illustrations of trees by author/artist Edward Carey punctuate this elegant, moving narrative.
The Millions talked with Kane via email about the writer Amanda Davis, H Is for Hawk, urban gardening, and friendship during the social media age.
TM: When did you decide to write this novel? Had it been an idea that has been percolating for a while?
JK: The first inkling of the idea dates back to 2003 when I learned of the death of the writer Amanda Davis. I became a little obsessed with the tribute page that McSweeney’s created so that anyone who’d known her could share memories. Taken all together, it’s an extraordinary document of friendship, and it set me to thinking a lot about friendship just as social media began to take over the world. Facebook launched in 2004.
TM: When did you first encounter Davis and her work?
JK: I never met Amanda Davis, but I’d been aware of her work and had read her first book, a collection of stories called Circling the Drain. I’d been following the release of her first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, with great interest, in part because she’d achieved my dream: After a collection of stories, she’d published a novel. I’d published a collection, too, but in 2003 I was at home with my first baby and beginning to feel like a novel was never going to be within reach. She was an inspiration and the news of her death was a shock. Then I read the tributes, and much like May in my novel, felt she must have known something about friendship that had alluded me.
TM: I love the quote from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as your epigraph. It’s one of my favorite novels, and in a way, The Waves is one of the original friendship novels with how it explores what we know about ourselves and our identities through our relationships with others. What in Woolf’s novel inspired you with Rules for Visiting?
JK: I first read The Waves in college when I took a whole course on the novels of Virginia Woolf. She was one of my favorite writers then, and her work is still important to me, but I must confess to finding this epigraph in a not particularly noble way: I saw the last line of it via a search in Bartlett’s for friendship-themed quotations, then reverse-engineered it back to the book. When I reread the full context and remembered what The Waves was about, it seemed too good to be true.
Originally the book had a different epigraph at the beginning of each of the five sections. These were hugely important to me during the writing years, but eventually my editor at Penguin suggested they were part of a scaffolding that could be removed, and I immediately saw that she was right.
TM: How did you land on May Attaway’s voice? Was there a particular novel or story that inspired you in finding a balance between remoteness and intimacy, reclusiveness and a desire for connection?
JK: Definitely Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Also Claire Messud’s Nora Eldridge in The Woman Upstairs. But also, and this may seem odd at first but bear with me, Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk. I loved that book so much, and after I finished it, I knew I wanted to try to write something with as many layers. MacDonald layered a story (grieving her father), with another story (raising her goshawk), and also gave us a mini-biography of T.H. White. In a similar way, I wanted my narrator, May Attaway, to sound as if she were writing a memoir (the story of a year visiting friends), layered with another story (the grief in her family), and also share a ton of information on the plant and tree world she loves so much.
TM: Do you consider May Attaway a reliable narrator?
JK: I’m not sure what May is. Sometimes she seems reliable because she is very accurate and forthright in her manner. Other times she’s unreliable because her very mission of accuracy belies a sorrow, or a gap in her understanding of how people behave. Maybe she is unreliable by virtue of trying to be so reliable.
TM: I loved how you weave so many different references to classic texts, particularly The Odyssey, throughout the narrative. When did you read The Odyssey for the first time? And did you know right away that you might use the epic poem as a recurring point of reference for your protagonist?
JK: I read The Odyssey as an English major in college, and of course it stands as one of the great journey narratives of all time. I was working on Rules for Visiting and I suppose thinking of literary journeys when I remembered the famous line “O Muse, I sing of arms and the man.” Right away I knew I wanted to recast that for my female hero on her series of domestic journeys. The line, “O Muse, I sing of visits and the woman,” came to mind. That was the beginning.
JK: I follow Edward on Twitter, where he will occasionally post a sketch or a bit of a work-in-progress or an exercise he’s set for himself, and one day when I was writing the book, I saw an amazing sketch (charcoal, I think) of a dead rat.
It was the summer of 2016 and I had most of a first draft of the novel. I began to think I wanted it to have tree illustrations, if possible, because I thought readers should have a guide to the shapes of the trees discussed. I don’t think many people have a working sense of tree forms in their minds. I wanted something fairly botanically accurate, but also with mood, and honestly, the very first thing I thought of was that Edward Carey rat. I wrote him an email, he asked to read the manuscript, and then he agreed. My only regret is that we couldn’t put more of his trees in the book.
TM: What is your personal relationship to flowers and trees outside of writing? Where do you find nature in New York City?
JK: I have a balcony in New York City where I have been trying different approaches to container gardening. I don’t love annuals either—May and I have this in common—so I’ve tried ambitious plants with mixed results: a rosebush (dead), a crepe myrtle (dead) a dwarf cypress (still alive, but struggling). My current delight is that I have some peonies coming up in a pot and I’m crossing my fingers they keep growing until they bloom.
TM: What do you think is being lost with friendship during this social media age?
JK: I think we might be losing the art of visiting. We are so busy and mostly unwilling to inconvenience someone else because we don’t want to be inconvenienced ourselves. Just look at the language around asking if you can stay with someone: “I don’t want to put you out.” “Please don’t go to any trouble.” “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
Today we stay in touch with emoji buttons, text instead of call, and travel mainly for sights and experiences instead of friendship. Think of Jane Austen’s novels. They are full of lots of things we don’t seem to have time for: letters, walks, and visiting, the stuff of lasting friendship.
TM: It’s funny because you and I met through Twitter, and then IRL when you came to Austin last November. So, some aspects of social media produce authentic connections despite all of the artificial curated facets of it? Have you experienced this with other writers, too?
JK: Yes, a handful. And other readers, too. I love it when a Twitter friend moves into real life. It can feel awkward to make that initial contact—I remember we talked about this when I came to Austin and we met—but it has never yet been not worthwhile.
TM: What’s a favorite thank-you gift to give to others when you’re visiting friends or family?
JK: If I can’t think of something specific to the person, and there isn’t a favorite item that I know I can bring them from New York, then my favorite gift has been a hand-blown glass votive similar to some that I have. I like the idea of our households being linked by candlelight.
It’s there in the early books we read—the ideal of friendship, its glimmer.
“But his favourite person of all was Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper because she had four names just as he did,” writes Mem Fox in Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. “He called her Miss Nancy and told her all his secrets.”
“But that night they dreamed about each other, the way true friends do,” assures Helme Heine in Friends.
“You have been my friend,” a fading spider tells a mourning pig in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. “That is itself a tremendous thing.”
Red and Fred in P.D. Eastman’s Big Dog…Little Dog. Mary and Colin and Dickon in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The Walrus and the Carpenter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Mary and Celestine in Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen. We grow into our friendships as we grow into our books—the ideals crack, what is lost can be more powerful than what is gained, and what is gained is never absolute. This is friendship that we’re speaking of: gesture, theater, refracting lens, perhaps only temporary reprieve, provocatively more complicated as the years unfold.
The Venn and fray of adult friendship are the propulsive stuff of recent novels by Sally Rooney, Rebecca Makkai, Sigrid Nunez, and Jessica Francis Kane. The books arrive at an anxious time, when social media “likes” appear to absolve us of the need to actually engage, GoFundMe campaigns stand in for hugs or cheers, and political maneuvers aim their ammunition toward the shatter of communities. We align, but do we step in? We care, but do we call? We know that true friends should fall to sleep dreaming of each other, but instead we groom our solitary nightmares. In all of this, the questions remain: What is a friend? What do friends do? What does one friend owe to another, and is friendship love a separate kind of love or something else altogether?
Is friendship a word without borders?
Should there be borders?
In Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, college students Frances and Bobbi were lovers before the story begins, but when we meet them, they’re “just friends”—two girls becoming increasingly entangled with an older married couple. It’s a dangerous business, a lark with consequences, and as one betrayal follows another, the “just friends” business grows increasingly strained and strange.
We read the novel to find out what the girls expect from one another and what secrets might be ethically protected. We read because Rooney is forcing us to decide whether, within the fluid realm of contemporary friendship, any semblance of propriety must be preserved. When a relationship becomes self-consciously ironic and blurred, is that friendship or is it love and does that matter?
Marianne saw us holding hands in college one day and said: You’re back together! We shrugged. It was a relationship, and also not a relationship. Each of our gestures felt spontaneous, and if from the outside we resembled a couple, that was an interesting coincidence for us. We developed a joke about it, which was meaningless to everyone including ourselves. What is a friend? We would say humorously. What is a conversation?
Rooney is an outstanding chronicler of the fluidity of friendship in a “with benefits” world. It’s a modern arrangement that may well trigger old-fashioned devastation. “Well she’s not my girlfriend as such,” Frances says. “We’re sleeping together but I think that’s a way of testing the limits of best friendship.”
For Makkai in The Great Believers, the death of Fiona’s gay brother in mid-1980s Chicago creates an inheritance—a community of friends—that will succor and haunt her for the rest of her life. The bonds run deep. So does the heartbreak. Fiona’s friendship with gay men like Yale Tishman, for example, snaps her relationship with her husband and ultimately estranges her from her daughter. If friendship is Fiona’s talent, it is a freighted one, burdened by the temptations of possession.
Friendship, a benevolent word, is rife, for Makkai, with repercussions. It is also, as we learn from Yale himself, a concept steeped in melancholy. Yale has no lover toward the story’s end, but perhaps he is not lonely. Perhaps he has learned—not too late, but almost—that friendship, at its core, is elemental. Writes Makkai: “And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone’s life. Making room for someone in yours.”
This thin line between love and friendship plays out brilliantly in Sigrid Nunez’s slender and affecting The Friend. The narrator is a writer and teacher of writing who speaks, throughout the book, to her dear friend, now dead of a suicide. These two were lovers but once. They were friends for nearly lifetime. The narrator won’t stop speaking to her lost friend, won’t stop imagining him with her, won’t stop remembering who he was and conjecturing whom he might have become. The narrator even agrees to her lost friend’s wish that she adopt his harlequin Great Dane, a majestically mourning beast who threatens to consume the narrator’s 500-square-foot apartment.
Is mourning for a friend the same as mourning for a lover? Does it matter? Will the dead friend always be more real than those who are still alive, still offering the narrator a chance to engage in a living conversation? “The dead dwell in the conditional tense of the unreal,” Nunez writes. “But there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they’ll say even before I write them.”
And that dead friend’s dog? It is, Nunez writes, “like having a part of you here.” But ultimately, Nunez suggests, surviving the loss of a friend is not much different from surviving the loss of a lover; it may even be, given the permutations of the condition, harder. “The dog has to forget you,” the narrator says, though she might as well be speaking of herself. “He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.”
In Jessica Francis Kane’s forthcoming novel, Rules for Visiting, May Attaway lives a seemingly uncomplicated life with her elderly father in the house where she grew up. She’s a university gardener with pleasant-enough interactions, but when she reads about a young woman’s death and the deeply affecting mourning that emerges in its wake, she recognizes the vacancy that has crept into her life.
“You could be good at being a friend, and no sooner had I had the thought than I knew I was not,” writes Kane. “I had some friends, but did I have a community? No. Would a group of us someday rent a beach house together and have a weekend of frivolous yet somehow poignant fun? Never. Most of my friends do not know one another, and even if they did, I’m certain they would not consider me the center of anything.”
An unexpected gift of time sends Attaway on a journey to discover something about her capacity for friendship, which is to say her capacity for all that friendship demands of us: spontaneity, tolerance, humor, truth, the willingness to be our unguarded selves, and the strength (which is desire) to carry each other forward. Kane is a quietly humorous writer, a thoughtful purveyor of friendless tropes and quotes, social media fallacies, awkward inner thoughts. Her careful narrator is carefully concealing the reason friendship has been elusive in her life.
Love and friendship are indivisible, Eudora Welty wrote in her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship: “The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.” Still, the math is hard to figure—the calculations and permutations of friendship spill forward, always, in story. The new friendship novels challenge us to be the friends we could still be. The new friendship novels offer truth in consequences.
Image credit: Unsplash/Korney Violin.