The Friends We Keep is the heartwarming and unforgettable New York Times bestselling novel from Jane Green, author of The Sunshine Sisters and The Beach House.
Evvie, Maggie, and Topher have known one another since college. Their friendship was something they swore would last forever. Now years have passed, the friends have drifted apart, and they never found the lives they wanted—the lives they dreamed of when they were young and everything seemed possible.
Evvie starved herself to become a supermodel but derailed her career by sleeping with a married man.
Maggie married Ben, the boy she fell in love with in college, never imagining the heartbreak his drinking would cause.
Topher became a successful actor, but the shame of a childhood secret shut him off from real intimacy.
By their thirtieth reunion, these old friends have lost touch with one another and with the people they dreamed of becoming. Together again, they have a second chance at happiness...until a dark secret is revealed that changes everything.
The Friends We Keep is about how despite disappointments we’ve had or mistakes we’ve made, it’s never too late to find a place to call home.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 31, 1968
Place of Birth:London, England
Education:"Managed to drop out of Fine Art Degree at University."
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jane Green
I worry that it’s too late, that I should have done this years ago instead of burying my head in the sand and letting my marriage drift. My sobriety feels different this time, and these past few months I’ve been nostalgic. I’m praying it’s not too late to make amends for the hell I’ve put her through, to start again.
I’ve been thinking about how it used to be, when we were first married, on our honeymoon when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. The hotel staff couldn’t help but smile when they saw us—we were so in love. Those early years were so good. Finding the house in Somerset, trying for a baby, convinced that life would go our way, that we would get everything we ever wanted.
I hope to God it’s not too late for us to get back on track. Let’s face it, I’m not an impulsive man. I’m a scientist. I don’t do anything impulsively, other than the years I was drinking. But I’m sober now. My doctor said one more drink would kill me. For the first time in my life, falling off the wagon isn’t an option. I’ve had nine months without a drink, and this time I feel great. The only thing that’s not working is my marriage, and I can’t blame her. I’ve put my poor wife through hell all these years. The drinking, the blackouts, the disappearing for days at a time. I can’t believe she’s stuck by me, although if I’m honest, it’s in name only. We’ve barely spoken since I started working in London. When I’m home on the weekends, we pass each other like ships in the night. I know she’s still checking the bins for empty bottles of vodka. I thought I had made my amends to her for the years of pain, but it wasn’t enough.
I can feel her slipping away, withdrawing so completely into herself that I don’t know if there’s a way to fix things. I need to do something big to try to win my wife back; I need to surprise her, to remind her of what we used to have, if there’s any hope of making it through the next twenty-five years.
I lean my head against the window of the train, speeding past the London suburbs, racing past the terraced brick houses and weeds climbing over the embankment, but I’m not seeing it. Not today. Every few seconds I pull out my phone and look at the screen, at the two boarding passes for Heathrow Monday morning, British Airways to Nice, where we’ll pick up a Hertz rental and drive up to the Colombe d’Or, the hotel where we spent our honeymoon, almost twenty-five years ago.
I’d never been to the South of France before. My wife had, of course, but not to that hotel; her parents had rented houses somewhere nearby, so this was special for both of us. The pair of us were such lovebirds, we barely left the room to explore. We spent our days getting up late and eating fresh croissants on the terrace under the huge Magritte mosaic wall, lounging by the swimming pool all day, our legs entwined, barely able to concentrate on the books we had brought. She teased me for bringing science journals, but she wasn’t any more interested in the novels she had packed. We only had eyes for each other.
Her skin was so pale, it was almost translucent, and her hair so red it glowed, and hung thick and long, almost touching her waist. We would stand in the pool, my wife wrapped around me like a silky coiled octopus, covering me with kisses, only breaking off to look at the fourth finger of her left hand, laughing, because she said she could not quite believe we were married.
“Evil Ben,” she’d say. “I’m married to Evil Ben!”
I’d laugh along with her, partly at the ridiculous nickname, but also because I couldn’t believe it either. I was married to one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen, a girl who seemed so out of my league when I first saw her at university, I didn’t think I would have a hope of having a conversation with her, let alone being married to her. Married! I couldn’t believe she was mine. I couldn’t believe she had chosen me.
It’s hard to believe we’re the same people as those two lovebirds all those years ago. It’s almost impossible to believe how happy we once were. Perhaps things wouldn’t have gotten quite so bad if I hadn’t taken this job in London. It’s never good for me to be on my own, but it was too much money to turn down. Ten more years, I thought, and then I can retire. But can we make it through the next ten years? Stupidly—Christ, how stupid I was—I thought that absence might make the heart grow fonder.
But that’s what had happened the last time I commuted. We had just moved to the house in Somerset, and were thinking about trying for a baby soon, but there was no pressure. My wife was thrilled I’d landed a job with such a prestigious pharmaceutical firm. It was a big promotion, and a big salary increase. And honestly? It was the perfect balance, most of the week in London and the weekends in this idyllic manor house with my beautiful wife. She loved it, too, in the beginning. She told anyone who would listen that our relationship was so good because it was part-time. We never took each other for granted, we had time to miss each other, and we looked forward to seeing each other.
But of course, I was on my own too much, and the pub was right next to my flat. Before long, I was rolling out of the pub every night, last man down. The only good thing was that my wife wasn’t around to nag me about it. I’d always phone her at around nine, before I got plastered, and tell her I was going to bed. Not that she had such a problem with me drinking then, but neither of us knew what a problem it would become.
She was fine with me getting drunk on the weekends. Most of the time she’d drink with me. It was the nightly beers and a triple vodka before bed that she couldn’t stand. (I never considered it a triple vodka. It was my nightly nip.) Being on my own in a London flat during the week meant I didn’t have to worry about it. If I chose to have a triple vodka, or three, before bed, no one would kick me awake throughout the night because of snoring, or look at me across a table and mutter, within earshot of everyone, that I’d had enough.
After a while, I didn’t want to go home. Being on my own in London made it easier to party with my best friend: booze. Until my boss intervened, telling me there were complaints that I was smelling of alcohol, and that if I didn’t get myself sober, they would have to fire me. It worked. I got sober. One of many, many times.
This time around, I’ve been sober the whole time I’ve been working in London. If my colleagues invite me to the pub, I turn them down. They joke about my flat being the perfect bachelor pad, but it’s lonely as hell. What’s a man like me supposed to do with a high-rise luxury flat in Paddington when his wife is at home in Somerset? Yeah. Don’t answer that. That’s not my style. At least, it’s not my style when sober. I don’t want to think about all the mistakes I made while I was drinking, the betrayals I’ll never be able to forgive myself for.
Nowadays the worst thing I get up to is ordering a Peshawari naan with the Indian takeout, and watching Sky News while scrolling through my phone. I now text my wife every day to say good night, at around nine p.m., but there are two differences from all those years ago when I used to phone her. The first is that I’m actually home, and the second is that she doesn’t text back.
I know she knows I’m sober for real this time. I worry that she doesn’t care. I’m ready to make a fresh start with my marriage. If I knew how to reach her.
How do you reach someone who has withdrawn so completely she barely looks at you even when you are together? I understand her resentment. I know that apologizing isn’t enough. I have to show her I’ve changed. We have to find a way to start again, to stop being strangers, rattling around in an enormous country house that now feels like a prison, filled with nothing but disappointments.
Would it be different if we had been able to have children? Yeah. Of course, it would be. When I was a kid and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to look at them very seriously and say, “A dad.” It was true. It was all I ever wanted. My sponsor thinks that’s why I started drinking, but I’m not so sure. My mum was a drinker. I think it’s in my blood. For years it was something I thought I could control, even before we got together. I’d get drunk on weekends only, and then the weekends stretched to include Thursdays, and then I stopped thinking about what day it was.
Now we’re settling into middle age, and I’m sober, and the past doesn’t matter anymore. Who do we have if we don’t have each other? I don’t want to divorce, I don’t want to be on my own, and I don’t want to start again with someone else.
I still love her, I just need to find a way to make her forgive me. You don’t spend half your life with someone and not love them. It’s just a bad patch, and I can’t blame her. I can prove to her how different I am, how much I’ve grown. Am I in love with her? No. Not anymore, neither of us is. But I think we could both learn to fall in love with each other again. I think we could learn to pay attention to each other, to make a decision that we’re not going to let this marriage fall apart, because right now, this marriage is falling apart.
So that’s why I’m surprising her with a second honeymoon. We haven’t had a holiday in years. We sit together at the kitchen table for meals, her scrolling through her phone, me reading a science journal. We barely communicate unless it’s transactional—cut the grass, trim the hedges, pay the bills.
This will change all that. I’m determined. I’ve even booked the same room we had. How can we not rediscover each other while walking down memory lane? I’m going to print out the boarding passes when we get home, and I’ll put them on the kitchen table for when she comes down tomorrow.
This is our fresh start. This is our second chance. I’m smiling as my phone buzzes, and I look down at the screen, seeing that she has texted me. This is a sign, I think, a sign that everything’s going to be okay.
I’m still smiling when I open up my messages to read her text:
I’ve seen a lawyer. I’ve had enough of this sham of a marriage. I want a divorce.
Once upon a time Evvie would have been like these other students, she thought as she paid the taxi driver and wrestled the huge Louis Vuitton trunk out of the back of the car. Once upon a time she might have had a mother and a father just like all the ones around her now, who have driven their kids to universities, helping them decorate their rooms with colorful duvets and posters, running out to the hardware store for more picture hooks, or rods for curtains, or a kettle so they could make tea in their rooms.
Evvie no longer spoke to her father. Not since he hit her mother, knocking out two of her teeth. Two days later they were on a plane, heading to London, to her grandmother’s tiny terraced house in Stockwell. It was a far cry from their old life in Brooklyn, but her mother had had enough. She went back to the bosom of her family to get her teeth and her life fixed, and she retained a divorce attorney who handled everything from overseas.
Her mother would have come with her today—her only daughter at an English university! The daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who managed, by sheer force of will and hard work, to provide her family with a life she could only have dreamed of as a child. It was a long way from the streets of Kingston, but she did it! She married the son of a wealthy white banking family, unaware they would be cut off financially once he married someone so unsuitable. But the name alone had opened doors, allowed her to give her daughter a life of privilege and opportunity.
Evvie knew her mother wasn’t receiving the child support and alimony she was supposed to. She had tried to call her father herself, but those conversations never went well. Evvie knew her father was cold, but when she’d said, on their last call, that she wouldn’t speak to him again, he honestly didn’t seem to care. Even Evvie hadn’t thought he was that cold.
They struggled for a while, but now Evvie’s mom had a job at a large advertising agency. Two days off to get her daughter settled in to her university would be too much. Evvie didn’t mind, she’d heard her mother telling someone, and the truth was she hadn’t minded, she was so excited about going off to school that she hadn’t even thought about arriving alone. She hadn’t minded until she saw everyone else had their parents with them.
The taxi driver left, and Evvie was alone on the pavement, aware that people were eyeing her up and down, and worse, eyeing her trunk up and down. Oh God. She shouldn’t have brought it. Who brings a giant Louis Vuitton trunk to college? But it was the only one she had that was big enough for all her stuff, and she honestly didn’t give it a second thought. Until now.
She had been feeling so good this morning when she left her house. She’d been planning her outfit for weeks—the perfect baggy jeans, lace-up boots, and men’s shirt. She’d gone to her mom’s friend, a woman who had a hair salon in the front room of her house, who gave her a fantastic weave. A mass of tight curls cascaded down her back, leaving Evvie feeling beautiful for the first time in months.
The weight loss helped. Her mom had put her on her first diet when she was seven, leading up to the auditions for the new TV show The Perfect Family. Evvie had been cute and chubby, and her mother, who knew someone in the entertainment business, knew they were looking for someone slight. She put Evvie on a diet of grapes, yogurt, and a tiny bit of steak. Despite being permanently starving, Evvie lost the weight, got the part, and spent the last eleven years on the show, alienated from her regular school friends by her stardom, and isolated, too, by her weight, which yo-yoed up and down. The problem was particularly pronounced during her teenage years. She would gain weight and feel awful about herself, isolating herself at home, watching television and eating; then, as if a switch was flicked, she would wake up one day determined to lose it, knowing that the latest diet would be the key. Sure enough, the weight would drop off, and she would start going out to parties again with friends, making out with boys and feeling like she ruled the world.
Last month, having isolated herself in her grandmother’s house, she read about the Cambridge diet in one of her mother’s weekly magazines. Within the hour she had ordered it, and she had spent the past four weeks drinking shakes, smoothies, and soups, with a few meal replacement bars.
She had been feeling hungry, but skinny, loving seeing her hip bones emerge, loving that her 501s, once skintight with a muffin roll of fat above the waistline, now hung on her, baggy, slipping down to her hips so often she had to run to Brixton Market to buy a belt.
She had been so excited, had been feeling so great as skinny Evvie emerged, anticipating arriving at West Country University, whereupon she would meet George Michael, who just happened to be filming his new video in Somerset, and he would stop her and tell her she was the most gorgeous woman he had ever seen, and not only would he give her the starring role in his new video, but they would fall in love and live happily ever after.
She had spent so many hours lying in bed working out the precise details of this fantasy, all of which involved meeting George as soon as she arrived, that she found herself scanning the street, surprised not to see him around the corner.
Instead, two small blond girls walked past, their mouths falling open at the trunk, both of them staring at Evvie, sizing her up as she stood there, nervous for the first time, clutching a piece of paper in her hand, trying to figure out if this was the hall of residence, and where the entrance was.
She was aware of the girls staring at her, and it wasn’t staring in a good way. She felt awkward, wishing that she, too, had a friend, or family, or someone with her to help her brave her first day. She felt overwhelmed suddenly by leaving the relative safety of her grandmother’s home, by starting again, yet again, somewhere so unfamiliar and new. She was about to turn her back on the girls when she decided to try something else.
“Excuse me,” she said to the blondes, holding out the piece of paper with a bright smile. “Am I in the right place and do you know how to get in?”
One girl looked at the paper, while the other continued staring at Evvie as recognition slowly dawned on her.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re American? Hang on, I know you, don’t I? Aren’t you an actress?”
Evvie blushed ever so slightly. “I did a little bit of acting when I was a kid.”
The other girl looked up, an intrigued smile on her face. “No! Are you one of those cute kids in The Cosby Show?”
Evvie shook her head. “I always get that. I was in the other show. The Perfect Family? I don’t know if it even made it to the UK.” She was lying when she said that, attempting to play it down, because she knew perfectly well it aired in the UK. Her grandmother used to phone her after every episode to make sure she wouldn’t be as naughty in real life as she was on the show.
“I loved that show!” said the first blond girl, peering at her closely. “You were Yolanda, right? Oh my God! What are you doing here?”
“My mom’s from London,” explained Evvie. “Actually, she’s from Jamaica, but they came to London when she was a little girl. She moved to the United States when she met my dad, but they got divorced last year and she moved back here. With me. And now I’m a freshman here.” Evvie shrugged, wishing she had shut up. She always said too much when she was nervous.
“We have someone famous at our university!” said one. “Do you need help with that trunk?”
“I would love that,” Evvie said as the girls looked over at the crowds of people on the street, many still unloading cars, other students strolling by on the other side of the road, curious about this year’s new students, the boys scanning them for fresh meat.
“Dan!” shouted one of the girls. “Rupert! Get over here and help get this trunk inside. This is Yolanda! From The Perfect Family!”
“I’m not Yolanda,” Evvie corrected them, embarrassed. “I’m Evvie. And thank you so much.”
Her room was on the second floor. Dan and Rupert lugged the case up the stairs, down the hallway, and into a large room at the end. There, a large, dark-haired girl was refolding all her clothes and putting them away in the one closet, which she had already marked in half with masking tape.
“You must be Evelyn,” she said, friendly, even though she eyed the boys suspiciously. “I’m Victoria Charles. Are these your brothers?”
Evvie almost laughed out loud. How a half-Jamaican, dark-skinned girl from America would have two fair-haired chinless wonders as brothers was beyond her, but she just shook her head.
“This is Dan and Rupert. They just helped me. Guys, thank you so, so much. Can I give you this?” She reached into her pocket and brought out the two-pound bills she had secreted there while the boys were hauling the trunk ahead of her. She had been brought up to always thank by tipping. It was the American way. The boys looked at her proffered money and laughed in disbelief.
“You’re joking,” said Rupert. “Are you tipping us?”
“I’m just . . . thanking you. You can have a beer on me.”
“Done,” said Dan, darting forward and taking the money. “Thanks very much! Have a good day!”
That last bit was said in what sounded suspiciously like a bad American accent, and Evvie knew she had done the wrong thing. Fuck. Oh well. How was she supposed to know? The boys left the room, and she heard them laughing all the way down the hall.
“Tipping isn’t really the done thing over here,” said Victoria, pushing her glasses back on her nose. “I think you may have just offended them.”
“Oh no,” said Evvie. “That’s embarrassing. Fuck. Should I apologize?” She noticed that Victoria winced when she swore, and silently berated herself, taking in, for the first time, her new roommate’s neat kilt and tucked-in sweater, her flute resting on the shelf, the sensible shoes lined up in the wardrobe.
This was clearly not going to be a match made in heaven. Evvie had no idea what they could possibly find in common.
“My parents just left, which is such a shame.” Victoria rushed in to fill the silence. “They were hoping to meet you, so I’ll have to take a photograph of us and send it to them. I have a kettle”—she gestured to a kettle on the desk—“and I brought two mugs. One for you and one for me. Which one would you like?”
Evvie went over and picked up the mugs. One had a cartoon of a fluffy cat surrounded by hearts and read, Catpuccino. The other had a different cat and said, List of People I Love: Cats.
“I guess you like cats then?” said Evvie, who was much more a dog person herself.
“These are my babies.” Victoria picked up a photo of two cats on a bed. “Fluffy and Buttercup. They’re the loves of my life.”
“Adorable,” said Evvie, who had never quite understood what people could possibly find adorable about cats.
“So, which one do you want?” Victoria gestured at the mugs. This was clearly very, very important to her.
“I’ll take Catpuccino,” said Evvie, wondering who she might have to talk to in order to get her roommate switched.
“That’s just what I was hoping.” Victoria broke into a big smile. “I hope you don’t mind but I have to practice my flute every day for an hour. Luckily for you, I’m rather good.”
“There aren’t music rooms you can practice in?”
Victoria’s face fell. “There are, but not in halls. Is the flute a problem?”
“I’m sure I’ll get used to it,” Evvie said, praying Victoria was as good as she claimed. “Have you explored the dorms yet? Met any of the other girls?”
“I haven’t. I wanted to get my room set up first. Have you?”
“Not yet but I think I might go now. Do you want to come?”
Victoria shook her head. “I’ll stay and put up the posters. Look! Aren’t they brilliant?” She unrolled pastel-colored illustrations of cats, complete with hearts all around.
“Brilliant!” said Evvie, backing out of the room and escaping down the narrow stairs to the common room.
The common room was very brown, very bare, and empty apart from a girl who was slouched in a chair, her feet up on another chair, watching television and quietly crying as she picked out the large round candy from a big bag and ate them, through her sobs. The first things Evvie noticed were endless bare legs, enviably long and slim, and then, as she stepped forward, a shock of thick, red hair tumbling onto her shoulders, a petite aquiline nose, and red-rimmed eyes.
“Are you okay?” Evvie said, sitting next to the girl, who was clutching sodden tissues in one hand. “Is this a sad TV show?”
“No. It’s Pebble Mill. The only thing that’s sad about it is that I’m actually watching it. My parents just left and I’m feeling homesick. Want one? I only like the round ones.”
“What are they?” asked Evvie, reaching in and taking out what looked like a mini cake.
“Liquorice Allsorts, my favorite sweets. Help yourself. I’m sorry.” She sniffed, regaining her composure and wiping away the tears. “I didn’t mean to weep pathetically in the common room.” She looked around to check that no one was listening. “It doesn’t help that I’ve got a roommate I seem to have nothing in common with whatsoever. She’s doing a degree in physics, and she’s brought her pet iguana with her in a giant bloody cage that stinks to high heaven. I don’t know what to do.”
“Will she be playing the flute for an hour every night, and decorating the room with pictures of cats? Because that’s what I’m contending with.”
“Oh God,” said the girl, the tears replaced with a smile of disbelief as she sat up. “How in hell do they figure out these pairings? Didn’t they ask us to fill out forms with our interests? I don’t remember putting scaly creatures anywhere on mine.”
“I definitely didn’t put cats. I’m pretty sure I put George Michael somewhere on mine. And theater.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Theater? Are you studying drama too?”
“Drama and English.”
“Me too!” She paused, a thought taking hold. “Don’t you think it would be more sensible if you and I roomed together?”
Evvie broke into a large smile. “I think that would be totally awesome. Who do we have to speak to?”
“Probably the warden. My parents brought a huge box of chocolates for her to introduce themselves, so we’re already good friends. Let’s go and find her. Have you unpacked yet?”
Evvie shook her head.
“Perfect. We’ll get Lizard Lady out of my room and get you in. I’ve got a huge bay window on the ground floor with a view of the street, so we can look out for handsome boys and invite them in for tea.”
“I like the way you think,” said Evvie.
“This is clearly meant to be,” said the girl, now standing up and extending her hand. “I’m Maggie, by the way.”
“We’re going to be best friends, aren’t we?” said Maggie. “I can feel it.”
“I feel it too,” said Evvie, all insecurity and intimidation having disappeared. Now that she had found a friend, there was nothing she couldn’t handle, least of all disappointing the dreadful Victoria.
Two hours later, Evvie had moved downstairs, and the lizard lady had moved upstairs with Victoria, who, it turned out, had spent her entire life dreaming of having a bearded dragon. Even though Iggy was clearly not a bearded dragon, she couldn’t have been more delighted. When Evvie left her room, Victoria and her new roommate were deep in conversation about lizards the roommate had loved, and how she had looked after them.
Maggie’s room was huge, and bright, and she had dragged two brown chairs in from the common room— “Shh. Don’t tell anyone”—and placed them in the bay window, looking out at the street so they could indeed see all the handsome boys walking past and, in fact, everyone else.
Her bed was covered in a pretty cornflower-blue bedspread, with matching pillows, and her desk had a set of cornflower-blue stationery, pen holders, and notebooks, everything matching.
“Please tell me you’re not always this perfect,” Evvie said, worried that in leaving Victoria she may have left the frying pan only to jump into the fire.
“I am definitely not perfect. I just like things to look pretty. But open my wardrobe and you’ll see the inner me.”
Evvie had marched over to the wardrobe, flung the doors open, and laughed out loud at Maggie’s clothes, stuffed into the shelves haphazardly, shoes piled up on shoes, as if Maggie had just thrown them all in there from the other side of the room.
“Did you just toss everything in here?” Evvie asked, standing aside as Maggie pulled off one of her espadrilles and launched it through the air, whereupon it landed in the wardrobe with a clatter.
“Goal!” shouted Maggie. “I wasn’t Goal Shooter on the school netball team for nothing. And yes. I did throw everything in there. I couldn’t be bothered to move the box from the window.”
“I’m liking you more and more,” said Evvie as she opened her trunk and started to unpack.
Evvie’s duvet was not cornflower blue, nor was it Laura Ashley. She had no idea what it was, only that her grandmother had bought it for her, therefore it had sentimental value, even though, next to Maggie’s quilted opulent bed, piled high with cushions, her side of the room looked not just drab, but bare. The duvet was tan and orange, which looked terrible with the blue, and she had nothing to decorate the walls.
“This does not look good,” said Maggie, surveying the room when Evvie had unpacked. “At least we have the Louis Vuitton trunk, which will make an excellent table.” She had nudged it over the thin carpet to sit between the chairs in the bay window, where it did, in fact, make an excellent coffee table. “You know what this room needs? Cushions. And throws. And something for the walls. I think we should have matching beds. My mum bought two of these bedspreads, one for me and one for the guest room, so I’ll just get her to send the other bedspread. And the pillowcases. You know there’s a Habitat somewhere around here. Let’s get the phone book and find out. I think we need to do some shopping.”
Evvie paused, embarrassed. Not just that Maggie seemed so mature—she’d never met anyone who knew how to accessorize at their age—but that it was quite clear that Maggie’s family had money. It wasn’t just the quality of her clothes, although they looked expensive; it was her whole air. She acted as if she expected everything to go her way, with a confidence that seemed well beyond her years. Such was her self-possession, Evvie soon learned, that everything did, in fact, seem to go her way.
When Maggie confided in the warden, conspiratorially, that she was allergic to lizards, the warden said she would take care of it immediately. And did. And now Maggie was almost ushering Evvie out the door to spend what was likely to be serious money at Habitat, except Evvie didn’t have serious money.
What she had made during her time as a child star was locked up in a trust, and without child support and alimony, her mother was working as hard as she could to put Evvie through college. There was no extra cash for frivolities like cushions, and framed pictures for the wall. She thought of her father, who, now that he had divorced her mother, had been welcomed back into the bosom of his family. She thought of how much she had loved him when she was a little girl, how she thought he would always be her protector, her savior, and how he had abandoned her in every way possible. She fought the mix of tears and resentment that threatened to wash over her.
Maggie paused, noting Evvie’s expression, presuming it was just about the money. “Look!” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a credit card. “From my father. To be used for emergencies, and this room is definitely an emergency.”
“I can’t believe you’re describing my duvet as an emergency.” Evvie regained her composure and smiled.
“Is it a duvet you’ve had since you were a baby?”
“No. My grandmother bought it for me to bring to college.”
“Would you ever, in a million years, have picked that duvet out for yourself?”
“Maybe not.” Evvie started to laugh. “Okay. It’s as ugly as sin. Let’s go. As long as it’s not expensive, I’m in. I would pay if I could, but I’m on a strict budget. My money’s tied up in a trust. I don’t have access to it until I’m twenty-one. I think my mom was terrified I’d turn into one of those child star horror stories and blow all my earnings on cocaine and champagne. I think she’s regretting it now but my dad’s one of the trustees and he won’t break it.”
“She sounds very sensible. Don’t worry about it. My dad will be fine if I put it on the credit card. And now I want to hear more about you being a child star.”
By the time the girls figured out transportation to Bath and reached Habitat, their life stories had spilled out. Maggie had, it seemed, come from the diametric opposite of Evvie’s life in every possible way. The only girl, She had been raised by the perfect parents, and as the only girl, was adored by her father. Her three older brothers excelled in everything they ever touched, and Maggie wanted nothing more than to get married and have a life just like her parents’.
“Will you work?” asked Evvie.
“Not unless I’m forced.” Maggie grimaced.
She had a plan, one that seemed to Evvie to be shockingly old-fashioned. But who was Evvie to point out that times had changed, and a woman was prime minister (even if, as her grandmother often said, there wasn’t anything very womanly about Maggie Thatcher), and weren’t they supposed to be having careers and taking over the world?
Maggie’s plan? To attend university, and to work for a few years in something like PR or marketing, before finding a husband and settling down. She wanted a large country house, at least four children, and two Labrador retrievers, and friends dropping in all the time. She wanted, in short, a life just like the one she had had as a child in Sussex. “And why wouldn’t I?” she said when Evvie pointed that out. “It was completely idyllic.”
Her mother was a wonderful cook who welcomed her father home from work every evening with a gourmet meal. Maggie and her three brothers had dinner with their parents nightly, a boisterous affair that usually saw them sitting at the table chatting about everything, long into the evening. Maggie and her mother would clear the table after dinner, leaving her father and brothers to have some “boy time.”
Her parents were happy, and loving, and a world away from Evvie’s. Maggie’s upbringing had consisted of horses, gymkhanas, and dogs, graduating to parties thrown by young farmers’ organizations that ended with various apple-cheeked girls snogging drunken well-heeled young men on hay bales in barns from Cornwall to Scotland. During the sixth form there were balls, which drew from public schools across the country. Maggie had a selection of silk taffeta ball gowns and had even—oh the joy!—appeared in the society pages of Tatler magazine, a magazine Evvie had never heard of.
Evvie told Maggie about her own family, about her street-smart, elegant, beautiful mother who had been brought up first in Kingston, Jamaica, before emigrating to London and meeting Evvie’s Waspy, preppy white father while on vacation in New York. She got pregnant, had stayed. Even though they were cut off from her father’s wealthy family, he had a series of jobs, one after another. He had been doing fine until his drinking got out of control and he’d been “let go,” only for his family name to open yet another door at yet another banking firm.
She didn’t tell Maggie about the rages. She didn’t tell her what it was like when she was a child, to hear her father come in late, slamming the door. Or what it was like to hear her mother chiding him while Evvie lay in bed, knowing that something terrible would happen, for however loving and affectionate her father was when sober, when he drank, something changed, and a temper emerged. She’d seen it lead to him losing so many of the people he loved—including, eventually, Evvie and her mother.
He was always contrite the next day—when sober. Sometimes Evvie would come downstairs and find her father on his knees, sobbing, clutching her mother’s legs as he begged for forgiveness. She always forgave him, and Evvie prayed it wouldn’t happen again.
But one day, he hurt her mother so badly, she stopped forgiving him. She had had enough. There was no room for begging, for forgiveness. They were on a plane, Evvie’s mother’s lips pressed tightly shut the entire journey so no one would see the missing teeth that had flown out when he hit her in the mouth. Evvie told Maggie none of this.
Instead she told her about being “half-caste,” how she grew up in Brooklyn, going to a privileged performing arts school that was totally mixed, where none of the kids focused on whether they were black or white. And then moving to Stockwell, where her grandmother’s community was entirely black, and her light skin made it both easier, and harder, to know where to fit in. Evvie felt Jamaican, American, and English. She liked ackee and saltfish for breakfast, and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for dinner, and as much as she adored her mother, she was terrified of getting on her bad side.
“So where do you fit in?” said Maggie.
“Wherever I feel at home,” Evvie said simply.
Habitat was empty. They wandered around the ground floor for a while, lusting after furniture and fantasizing about the kinds of houses they would have when they finally left college, before heading upstairs to the bedding department.
Wandering past the futons, they came upon a bedroom set in a bright sunshine yellow. And there, in the middle of an enormous king-sized bed, was a good-looking young man, his oxfords off and placed neatly together by the side of the bed, his legs crossed comfortably as he lay against the pillows, engrossed in a copy of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, with a worn and well-loved teddy bear tucked under one arm.
“Are you serious?” Evvie held Maggie back, whispering as she pointed him out. “Is that a mannequin?”
“No. I don’t think so. I think he’s real.” Maggie stepped toward the bed, quietly. “I think I saw his eyes move.”
“His eyes are now closing,” said the mannequin boy on the bed, putting the book down and closing his eyes, before opening them immediately and grinning at them. “Hello. Can I help you?”
“You’re American!” said Evvie in delight.
His face fell. “Can you tell? Damn. I’ve been working on my English accent for months. I’m attempting to channel Sebastian Flyte, but clearly it’s not working.”
“The teddy bear is an excellent touch.”
“Don’t you think?” said the boy, propping himself up against the pillows before looking at Evvie. “Speaking of Americans, you’re American. Who are you and where are you from?”
“Evvie Williams, originally from New York, although more recently from Stockwell in London, via Brooklyn. It’s complicated.”
“Evvie Williams?” He squinted at her. “You look very familiar. Is that your real name?”
“It’s my mom’s name. When I was a child I was Evvie Hamilton.”
“I knew it! I knew I recognized you. You were Yolanda Campbell on The Perfect Family.”
“How do you remember that?”
“I’m going to be an actor. It’s my job to study actors and actresses. I know everything about acting, and movies. Go on. Test me.”
“Quote from The Breakfast Club.”
“‘You ought to spend a little more time trying to make something of yourself and a little less time trying to impress people.’”
“Too easy,” he said, pouting. “Try something harder.”
“What’s the name of Rosanna Arquette’s character in Desperately Seeking Susan?”
“Roberta. Come on, girls, you can do better.”
Maggie shrugged. “I’m not a big film person.” She peered at him closely. “So why are you here? Are you at the university?”
“Yes. I just arrived. My parents are living over here for my father’s work. He’s in oil. I got here this morning to find I’m stuck on a floor with a bunch of rugby players, and my roommate is playing Led Zeppelin at high volume as he installs a series of bongs on his desk. It’s hell.”
“So, you decided to move into Habitat instead?” Maggie ventured.
“Only temporarily, sadly. I wanted to find somewhere peaceful to read, and you have to admit, this room setup is rather wonderful.”
“You look like you have good taste. We’re trying to do up our room. Want to help us choose pillows and throws?” Evvie had warmed to this boy immediately.
He grinned, reaching for his shoes. “Shopping is my middle name. I’m Topher.”
Reading Group Guide
The Friends We Keep by Jane Green
Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with Ben’s point of view, and we see that he wants to change for the better. Do you think there could have been redemption for him, or was it far too late at that point?
2. One of the inspirations behind the story was the author’s realization that many women are leading lives far more isolated than they ever anticipated. Is this true for you, and if so, why?
3. Evvie commits an act of betrayal against Maggie, but Maggie is able to forgive her in the end. Do you think you could forgive Evvie? Why do you think Maggie can? What would you have done in Maggie’s position? In Evvie’s position?
4. Have you ever lost touch with your old and close friends and then seen them again? What did that feel like? How did time change—or not change—your relationships?
5. If you haven’t gotten in touch with old friends, why haven’t you? Do you want to do it? Or are you glad you haven’t?
6. Is a shared history enough to sustain a real friendship? What are the elements required of a true friend?
7. The story is told through the points of view of Evvie, Maggie, and Topher. Do these different perspectives allow you to sympathize with each of the characters despite their flaws? Who can you relate to the most?
8. Evvie has a history of being around men who are abusive, both emotionally and physically. Is it possible for her to break the pattern to find a good partner, and if so, how? What about Maggie? Do you think Topher will find love in the end too?
9. If you were in Jack’s position, how do you think you’d feel after finding out the truth? Would you have behaved the way Jack did? Why and why not?
10. Topher, Maggie, and Evvie decide to move in together after the ordeals they’ve all endured. As they continue to live together, what do you think the dynamic will be like, especially with Evvie and Maggie going into business together? Do you think they’ll always live together or separate again someday?