Author: Mary Renault
Details: (c) 1944 Mary Renault; Pub Pantheon Books 1985; ISBN 0-394-73369-X
Verdict: The friendly young ladies is a rather sweet character piece.
Reasons for reading it: I've been intrigued for a while to read Renault's contemporary lesbian piece.
How it came into my hands: To my delight it was on the bargain table at The Strand when I was bingeing on bookshopping in New York last summer. When I got home, I had so many books that unpacking them was a bit daunting, and I managed to stash The friendly young ladies somewhere I couldn't find again easily. I only remembered where it was when I was packing up books to get them sent here.
The friendly young ladies presents some characters and their interactions, beautifully drawn as expected for Renault, but that's pretty much all there is to it. Elsie is an impressively irritating drippy, Emma Bovary-ish adolescent, who just manages to be sympathetic enough to be bearable. It can't really be called a coming of age story, though the structure looks like that, because she fails entirely to do any significant growing up. Leo is a very interesting character, very much a person who is gay rather than a stock lesbian. And Peter is a very impressive portrait of the kind of guy described as "thinking he's God's gift to women"; he genuinely believes he's doing women favours with his slimy attentions, which makes him all the more effective as a character.
The story arc is somewhat like the Victorian parts of Possession, with the lesbian pair living together quietly and slightly unconventionally, and staying out of the way of society to avoid being condemned for the sexual part of their relationship, and this domestic harmony being shattered when Leo falls in love with a man. The portrayal of her falling in love with her best friend, the terror of spoiling something precious and the wonder are extremely well evoked, though the sex scene is incredibly disturbing in its violence and the extremely ambiguous consent situation.
Renault's afterword, written shortly before her death in 1983, is fascinating. She reveals that the novel was written partly as a direct response to the dreadful The well of loneliness, which makes real sense. There's a lovely rant about people who are self-indulgent enough to whine about finding it difficult to fit in with gender expectations while society is dealing with the trauma of WW2!
I can't pretend tFYL has anything like the power of Renault's Greek setting novels, but it's certainly an enjoyable read. And the emotional realism makes it noteworthy.