Only Myla Goldberg's first book, Bee Season, matches her potential. It is as confident and compelling a debut novel as has been published in the last 15 years. Combining spelling bees with religion, family secrets, and the shameless parental exploitation of precociousness proved to be a genius formulation, and Season's eager-to-please readability made it one of the more bizarre commercial successes of the early 21st century. Now Goldberg has returned with her third novel, and it is her least exciting book to date.
The False Friend is the story of a woman named Celia who returns to her hometown in order to bat away the cobwebs of false memories that have accrued around the abduction of a childhood friend named Djuna. Celia suddenly believes that the story she told the authorities about her friend's disappearance—that a mysterious car came along and picked Djuna up—was a lie, and that she may have had a more active hand in the disappearance.
The material is rich (and timely, too: Much of Celia's childhood guilt has to do with her memories of the merciless bullying she and Djuna visited on a poor, unfashionable girl in their school). But despite some beautiful language, Goldberg can't muster much of a conflict in Friend. She occasionally strikes up a brilliant image, as when she describes the faded majesty of the building where Celia works, which has lost most of its tenants to a fancy skyscraper across the way: "Above the doors of Celia's destination, STATE OF ILLINOIS BUILDING was carved in stone, those words a former title belt worn in reverse reflection by the mirrored facade of the new champion across the street." Unfortunately, there are not nearly so many striking images per page in Friend as in Goldberg's other works.
This is not to call Friend a wash. The scenes where Celia returns to the abandoned Middle America town of her youth sing with a desolate beauty, a tuneful dirge for an era just passed. And Celia's brief investigative visits to former schoolmates hint at fully rounded lives that exist off the page; none of her characters can be called flat. (Though some are more indulgent than others, especially Celia's boyfriend back home, who is named—prepare for authorial overreaching—Huck.) But the central mystery thuds; we can tell every step of the way that Goldberg is not going to sideswipe us the way she did in Bee Season. All the book amounts to is the story of a young woman wandering around her girlhood home, reminiscing. All the talent in the world—especially a talent so distracted as Goldberg seems here—can't make that story into something worth your rapt attention.