Review: Girlfriends

Girlfriends
Emily Zhou, 168 pgs, LittlePuss Press, littlepuss.net, $19.95

It’s fun to see a new writer emerge and follow their career almost from the beginning. Take Emily Zhou. A few years back, she started publishing fiction online and I looked forward to each new newsletter. Now her stories are in print and they’re not just something passed around trans Twitter.

Girlfriends collects seven of Zhou’s stories. At their best, they’re tender and have a nice undercurrent of emotion. There’s a resonance in her 20-something protagonists fumbling around, learning the beats and trying to make a go of it. They act like adults, but they’re still just kids, really.

Indeed, the thing about Zhou and the stories in Girlfriends is the way she captures that feeling one has in early adulthood. The way everything is new and exciting, and it feels like it’s the first time this has happened to anyone, or that life is just like the movies. The unrequited longing between Genevieve and the narrator in “Gap Year” or the way Cay fumbles into queer community in “Do-Over” capture this feeling well. To wit: “I kept wondering what I would say to you next, but at some point I looked up and you were gone.” But age shows that these feelings only happen because one is young and you haven’t experienced them before. By the third or fourth time you’ve fallen for some-one who doesn’t like you back, the charm has long since departed.

Elsewhere, Zhou’s stories have a nice edge to them. “Ponytail” has her writing in full mean girl mode, with the protagonist playing dirty and cutting people down to size seemingly for the sheer thrill of it; “Performance” has her going against expectations and letting the smart young woman fall for the wrong guy while seeming to enjoy it.

Though Zhou writes about a certain kind of youthfulness well, this very thing becomes the main drawback to Girlfriends. Her characters all live in the same kind of universe and have the same kind of life. They’re writers who live near the quad and have dreams about making it big someday. They name drop the same kind of writers — Henrich Boll, Robert Walser — and have an affinity for music. Despite settings ranging from rural Michigan to downtown Brooklyn, one gets the feeling these characters could all be the same person, and by the book’s end they begin to fade into each other.

Zhou’s a talented writer with a lot of potential and wits to match. Girlfriends is a nice introduction to her work and hopefully it’ll be the beginning of a fruitful career. While it doesn’t quite add up completely yet, one’s left with the feeling that someday, maybe it will.

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