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'Fiona and Jane' is a life-sized story of true friendship

<em>Fiona and Jane,</em> by Jean Chen Ho
Fiona and Jane, by Jean Chen Ho

So many of us are thrown into friendships through sheer circumstance when we're children — proximity at school, parental friendships, a shared difference or minority identity — but as we grow older and begin to make our own choices about where we'll live, what we'll do with our time and who we'll spend it with, we lose touch. We drift, or we stop liking each other, or we get busy and forgetful.

The friendships that do survive feel precious, unlikely. One such is at the tender, beating heart of Jean Chen Ho's debut work of fiction, Fiona and Jane.

This isn't instantly obvious. The book's first two pieces focus on the titular Jane and then Fiona individually. "The Night Market" is narrated by Jane during a trip to Taiwan to see her father, who moved away from the family's home in Los Angeles for what was supposed to be only a year, for work, but two and a half years later, he's still there and planning on renewing his contract. Fiona is mentioned briefly as Jane's best friend, and as the first girl she ever kissed ("that was just for practice, we'd said"), but the majority of the piece is about Jane and her family: her Taiwanese immigrant parents, her father's depression and the secret he shares with her when she visits, her mother's church, her own piano lessons with a tattooed woman named Ping.

The second piece, "The Inheritance," is closely focused on Fiona and her family. Born in Taiwan, Fiona was Ona first, adding the "Fi" because a white boy in Miss King's second-grade classroom (where she also met Jane) told her that Ona "wasn't a real name. She was new, and the boy spoke with authority, so she'd believed him." Fiona, who immigrated with her mother to California, never met her father, and not until graduating college, when she receives an inheritance from her grandfather, does she learn why.

These introductions to the girls' (later women's) families are helpful in setting the scene, showing us what they share in terms of background, language, and family, but it's the third piece, "Go Slow," where we really begin to see their friendship shine on the page. Their dynamic rings beautifully true. "Fiona always knew what to do," Jane tells us, and indeed, Fiona is the daring leader, ambitious and always up for adventure, pushing at the boundaries of her life. Jane, quieter when the two are teenagers, "cultivated mystery" and was called "Fiona's bodyguard behind [her] back." Regardless, they're close as best friends can be, getting drunk together for the first time, stealing money from church, driving around in a beat-up old car. Their friendship never feels saccharine, though, and they each have their secrets from each other: "some things, even between friends like they were, remained unspoken, passed over in silence."

Fiona is the one who leaves — first for college, then for New York City — while Jane stays put, has a series of encounters and relationships that often turn disastrous. During these years, they don't stay in constant touch, but each still has the other in the back of her mind, their formative experiences together having shaped their memories of what home and comfort mean. Both women are tough, in their own ways, and proud, preferring not to show weakness, but both experience hurt and heartbreak. Eventually, when Fiona moves back to LA, the two find each other again and pick up where they left off, as best they can. But there are still tensions between them, and there is always the sense that Jane needs Fiona just a little bit more than Fiona needs her.

Ho renders both women so real that they begin to feel like people you've encountered and hung out with. She also has a knack for rendering their darker, meaner thoughts, those they're sometimes ashamed of, with brutal honesty: "In truth, didn't [Fiona] believe her life, the choices she made possible for herself, superior to Jane's? The odd jobs Jane worked, and often lost, carelessly, after they graduated high school. Of course, Jane didn't really have to work, did she? Her mother always floated her money anyway." But they love one another, and this love comes through especially because they each are so independent and sometimes so lonely as well.

While Fiona and Jane sometimes feels quiet, it is never muted, and its precisely the fact that the women's trials and tribulations feel refreshingly life-sized that makes the book ring so beautifully, sometimes terribly, true.

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother's Lovers.

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