Unnamed Press ($17.99)
by Mary Lannon
Set in the 1980s in Chicago during the Tylenol murders, Leslie Pietrzyk’s emotionally resonant and timely Silver Girl tells the story of a fraught relationship between an unnamed working-class narrator and her best friend, the upper class Jess who has recently broken off an engagement. Each girl also has a complicated relationship with a sister.
It’s telling to place this well-crafted novel within the evolving tradition of the bildungsroman. Unlike the classic bildungsroman—defined by a male protagonist’s adventures in the larger world—early novels about women’s coming-of-age focused on what critics call “the marriage plot,” detailing the female protagonist’s journey to marriage. These narrative differences were due, no doubt, to the novel’s origin as a middle-class entertainment that reflected the gender roles of its milieu. Though novels have evolved to tell stories of other classes and other women’s roles, the marriage plot narrative remains with us, and in most marriage plot novels a minor part of the action concerns the main character and a friend or sister from whom she seeks counsel and with whom she bonds.
Pietrzyk’s book flips the traditional script of marriage plot novels by making Jess’s broken engagement merely a backdrop to the central drama of female bonding. The underlying dynamics of the friendship are well explored from the beginning:
After Jess and I met way back on that first day, she told me I was the only girl in the dorm she could stand for more than a couple of hours, the only person who understood her. She wasn’t that hard to understand, I didn’t think, but I understood not to tell her that. She wanted to be understood. Not me. This is how we knew we could be friends.
Throughout, Pietrzyk continues excavating this relationship: “Jess was afraid of fear, confusing it with weakness, and her solution was to bully herself into doing things that terrified her. I was the opposite, so used to fear I felt nothing.”
An equally noteworthy theme that’s also timely is Pietrzyk’s depiction of class dynamics. For example, she precisely captures the poor unnamed narrator and her families’ attitudes about class: “We weren’t poor-poor, not Secret Santa poor. My parents didn’t believe in crying, and they didn’t believe in charity.” She renders the emotional costs of poverty: “My fury was a living thing rattling my chest. I’d been born understanding a price tag was tacked on everything.” And she elucidates the class difference further with her renderings of the wealthy Jess’s lack of concern for money: “she didn’t like to hand-wash in the disgusting dorm sinks, so she threw away hose when they were dirty but still good.”
The novel jumps back and forth in time—a good choice on Pietrzyk’s part, as it increases the narrative drive of this hard-to-put-down book. Perhaps Silver Girl's only flaw is that it is a bit overstuffed, with abortion, incest, death, homophobia, artistic coming-of-age, infidelity, the Tylenol murders, and more all playing a part in the plot. Pietrzyk hardly needed all these propulsive elements, for the friendship and the sister relationships are so vividly rendered as to remind us that the richness of female bonds are more than enough to fill the lives of women and the books about them.