Books · Family & Friends

Toni Reads: ‘She Matters: A Life in Friendships’

“Many of us wall ourselves up when we are grown-ups, full of the mistakes we can’t undo, the worries we stifle so as not to repel others who are busy tamping down their own inner demons.”

9781439190586_p0_v3_s260x420Have you ever counted up your lifetime friendships with other girls and women? Counted them, and even analyzed them? Susanna Sonnenberg did so, and then turned some 25 such friendships into the series of vignettes that make up She Matters: A Life in Friendships.

This is Sonnenberg’s second memoir. Her Last Death, her first and much-praised book about growing up with the Mother from Hell, offers a chilling account. Her sex-obsessed mom gave Susanna a Penthouse magazine when she was 10, cocaine when she was 12, tried to seduce Sue’s boyfriends . . . you get the picture. Mother did flatter her daughter by asking her about her thoughts and feelings, and actually listening. The pleasure Susanna took in this kind of attention shows up in her new book as she dissects each well- (perhaps overly well-) examined relationship.

She Matters renders Susanna’s mother as a vivacious, self-involved woman whose life as a double divorcée was a high drama featuring a succession of friends who came over to share vodka and cocaine.

When Susanna moved into her freshman college room, Mother showed up; galvanized shy Amy, the new roommate; dragged the girl to Planned Parenthood for birth control; and later bragged about it to Amy’s conservative parents. Amy moved out, later telling the author that she hated her.

Eventually Susanna cut her mother from her life. But she never stopped looking for substitutes, balm to heal her wounds. “I hunger all the time,” she writes, “and nothing answers me.” 

The stories in She Matters begin with Patricia, the author’s most enduring friend, whom she met after moving from New York to Missoula, Montana, with boyfriend—and then husband—Christopher.  Susanna and Patricia had “a long period of doubleness,” helped by their shared literary tastes. They were both writers. They compared beloved Alice Munro stories.

Patricia is a sunny person who puts few demands on a relationship. Susanna is more complex—accustomed to being called intense, accustomed to friendships that end. She stored a hurt long after Patricia was a no-show when Susanna had her second baby. When Sue finally told her friend about this, Patricia struggled to remember it, and Susanna realized that they could move on. Their friendship has been based on shared values and experiences. They remain friends years later, parents of high school sophomores. This long-lasting friendship is a wonder and a comfort to Sonnenberg.

In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Sonnenberg tells Jasmine Elist that memoir appeals to her “because it forces us to think about ‘truth’—each person has a different one.”  She chose to write about female relationships because  “women just get into it faster, more deliciously, and with more clarity—or its promise.”

Sonnenberg gives us no definitions of friendship, nor does she make a study of it.  From her interview with The Southeast Review: “I’m more interested in [friendship’s] sensations, its impression.”

The reader can extrapolate that Susanna learns from each relationship: about herself, about her effect on other women, about love and loyalty. She is drawn to nurturing women—some of them older, like Patricia.  She models herself after women she likes, striving to create closeness. She uses friendship to tell her story, her griefs and losses.

Her earlier friendships are often experiments: having sex with Miriam on a junior year abroad and then wanting out; crushing on Abigail, the senior proctor at boarding school from whom Susanna sought special, motherly treatment; Rachel, a friend from college, who attracts the author by her idiosyncrasy; Flora, the massage therapist who makes Susanna very happy by being a mother to her and who breaches a boundary in wanting to be friends outside of the paid relationship. (Sonnenberg changed “some of the names and biographical details” in the book.)

The most startling and remarkable things about She Matters are Sonnenberg’s incandescent writing and her honesty. If she seems needy and demanding, well, so do we all at times, but most of us do not have the habit of verbalized self-analysis and the courage to lay our hurts bare. “I was worn out with forcing my ruin and longing upon woman after woman,” she confesses in the book. Most of us have fewer relationships that wrench us body and soul. 

When Susanna has young children, the focus of friendships is often on the kids, the exhaustion of raising them, and the support she gets from being with others in the same boat, rather than on the “what about me?” mode she not only employs, but cops to with almost embarrassing frankness.

Every paragraph, indeed every sentence, is so well crafted that the reader sinks in with pleasure. Opening lines:  “Patricia will be late.  As I think this, with a tolerant fondness, she texts that she’ll be late.  It doesn’t bother me.  I’ve known her eighteen years, and she confirms herself, the deeply known friend, which reminds me of love in its greatest warmths, its common comfort.”

I too had a tendency to splat my psyche all over the walls when I was a twentysomething, engaging in the kind of intense conversations Sonnenberg loves. She Matters does reawaken a wish to have more open and deeper relationships with my women friends, to talk about what matters, to admit to our less than virtuous motives and deeds, to tell our deepest worries (at my age, that’s disability). Many of us wall ourselves up when we are grown-ups, full of the mistakes we can’t undo, the worries we stifle so as not to repel others who are busy tamping down their own inner demons. Sonnenberg is therefore a light in the darkness, her feelings so well expressed that she carries a willing reader with her.

Her book is a wild and rollicking ride, alive with the bonds women form, with the boundaries the author stumbles over, with her refusal to be merely an observer.

When Susanna’s father dies, she visits with April, a poet who once worked for him, who wants to listen and talk about him; April who forgives long spaces in their friendship; April, as fearless as Susanna in talking truth. They laugh and cry, and one has the warm knowledge this is a friendship that will last.

Sonnenberg leaves us with a sensual moment, and it is her gift to deliver us such visuals: “She [April] makes us fried eggs at the stove, orange yolks spectacular in the whites, delivered from the black skillet onto the plates that rest beside the window, and she brings the plates to the floor.  We eat.”

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  • Judy Hooper June 3, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Hope the book is as interesting as the post … It does make me think how important friendships are and how each friend has something to offer. I find myself gravitating to a couple of good friends but really after reading this review I realize I should appreciate all my friends for they all bring out something different in me as a person. We have so many sides to our inner self and many times I feel I can’t reveal all of me as it is too raw and I try and be ‘up’ as not to be a burden on friends.

  • Gail Willis June 1, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Very evocative review. I am just winding up a week- long stay at a remote location. Three of the six of us here have been friends since childhood. In our 72nd year we still find much to mull over and worry and rejoice about. We talk about the ways we have changed and the ways we are the same.