By page 50, I was tempted to put this book aside. The author writes without establishing an emotional connection to her protagonists, Paulina and Fran, and I thought I was in for a lackluster read. And yet, when I realized these shallow art school students are caricatured and not meant to be cared about, I mentally stepped back to read the book through an unaffected lens.
I observed the behavior on the page as one would watch an incomprehensible but entertaining play in which friendship is discarded as casually as a used match (and then picked up and put in the trash and then retrieved from the trash). Also, sex is more a commodity of power and self-importance among the art students than an act of love. Paulina and Fran are self-absorbed, arrogant, dishonest, frivolous, jealous and petty. While attending their New England art school, they live without serious consideration for the future, all the while imagining they will live glorious, famous lives. Nowhere in the story are academics or serious artistic values embraced. And if it’s not already obvious, self-image is of prime importance, as is perfect, dreamy curly hair.
This may seem distasteful, but once I let go of my emotional expectations, what was distasteful turned funny, and Rachel B. Glaser’s inventiveness sparkled. The story popped with energy and smart one-liners. Glaser reveals the girls’ silly, valueless existence with sharp wit, laughable scenes and a breezy narrative that sweeps through the pages with the dazzle of a happy Prima Donna.
The plot is thin but made robust with a fill-up of aforementioned wit. Paulina and Fran’s friendship begins during a 10-day college trip to Norway and ends when they’re back in the States. This break-up happens when Paulina dumps her boyfriend Julian and Fran hops into bed and a romantic relationship with him. The girls become competitive yet are haunted by an ever-present yearning for one another. Graduation arrives and strips away their illusions of self-glory: Fran paints houses in Upstate New York before moving to a dull cubicle job in Ohio; Paulina becomes homeless and then makes it big selling an invented curly hair product in Manhattan.
Paulina & Fran gives an exaggerated, lampooning glimpse into the life of art students, dreaming big as if fame arrives magically without the necessary hard work and integrity. Indeed, the Age of Artistic Youth comes across as an everlasting high. In one scene, where Paulina and Fran are dancing at a college party, author Rachel B. Glaser writes:
“The forgotten eighties song came on again, the synthesizer stirring up feelings, and everyone screamed the sound of youth loving youth. Everyone was in the same big mood.”
The story ends with distant orbiting of the girls around Julian and each other that’s altogether perfect albeit without hope. We know it’s doubtful they’ll land in a future that’s secure and successful unless they change, becoming more reality-savvy. The terrific lampooning aside, I wistfully wanted the ending to hint at their evolving maturity, if only for the girls to begin to realize, however slightly, that the best life is the one that’s not all about oneself.