Patricia Volk’s new novel—clever, funny, light—celebrates a precious urban resource: working women in their late 50’s and early 60’s, whose children have left home and who now have the space to reflect on their lives and to look around and catalog the wonders and curiosities of the metropolitan landscape. These women have cast off the blinkered self-absorption of youth; they’ve outlasted the exhaustion of rearing a young family; they’ve yet to be battered by the indignities of old age; and they’re far less likely than their male coevals to be puffed up with self-importance. They are the city’s true grown-ups.
In To My Dearest Friends, two such women, Nanny and Alice, are brought together by the last will and testament of a mutual friend, Roberta, who died three months earlier. Roberta has left them a letter locked away in a safe-deposit box, a steamy missive from an unknown lover. What are Nanny and Alice supposed to make of this glimpse into the private recesses of Roberta’s life? They agree at once to keep their mouths shut, to leave the grieving husband and his thirtysomething daughter in the dark. In part because she has her own secrets, Alice is inclined to do nothing else—to simply let matters rest; Nanny, who’s been a widow for three years, feels that they have a responsibility to figure out what their dead friend wanted them to do.
The premise is too tricksy, too cute, but the characters—two very different women, each wary of the other—come to life on the page, and the contrived mystery of the letter fades into the background (until, of course, we get to a sly twist at the end).
Ms. Volk is relaxed about point of view: Sometimes it’s first-person, alternating between prim, prickly Alice, who owns a high-class consignment shop, and dreamy, scattered Nanny, a therapist who’s become a real-estate broker. At other times, a deadpan third-person narrator hovers over the women’s shoulders. The result is agreeably intimate, a double portrait grounded in the detail of daily life. Panorama is not the style of To My Dearest Friends, and Ms. Volk doesn’t offer sociological pronouncements; she deals in individuals, not types.
Here’s the voice, unmistakable, of Nanny, taxiing home after an enjoyable evening with her daughter: “How brilliant Olmstead and Vaux were to blast the transverses below eye level. How fine it is to sail through Central Park in a timeless cavern of Manhattan schist. Headlights bounce off the mica. It’s a regular twinkle-fest. I’m riding in a valley of stars.” Here’s Alice, thinking about New York in glorious weather: “On these days the air is supercharged. There is more of something vital in it. People breathe deeper, walk taller …. On these days the bus driver keeps the door open when he spots you running.” A happy Nanny gushes, a happy Alice evaluates, and the distinction is apparent even in the rhythm of the sentences.
To My Dearest Friends is a novel about privacy and secrecy, the difference between them and the various reasons why we need both. But Patricia Volk doesn’t hammer at her theme; she treats it like a topic worth tossing around, not the moral of the story. After all, she also has another, jollier topic to entertain us with: the abiding mystery of friendship.
Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer.