With the knowledge that this may make me sound like a geek, some of my best friends have been books. There was Little Women. It was the first book that was actually mine. Before Jo, Amy, and Beth (I never liked Meg), I always had to return my friends to the library after two weeks. But from the first crease in the velvet-coated cover, these three stayed with me.
By the time I was carrying a copy of Catcher in the Rye in my backpack, I had met a lot of friends through the pages of well-worn books. There was Plath’s autobiographical sketch, Taming of the Shrew’s wickedly funny Katarina, and Hamlet’s lovely veiled insults. Scout spoke her mind about injustices in the world, as only a child can see them. The six friends from A Secret History were the most intellectual, heart-warming murderers I ever encountered. Hussein’s Kite Runner allowed me to see the world through another’s eyes, and that, yes, one can go back to make things right.
I met friends in the yellowed-pages of trashy paperbacks and in the gilded cloth of “high literature.” And, yet, the book that is my best friend went long neglected.
I first encountered A Circle of Friends many years ago. My grandmother was the quintessential bibliophile. Probably the only book I ever “stole” from her is this story of overweight Benny and abandoned Eve. For many years, it was my comforting friend. Home sick with a cold? Wrap up in a warm blanket and skip to the part where Benny meets Jack. Tired from cramming for exams? Start at the beginning and be asleep in no time. Had a fight with a boyfriend? Frantically skim the section in which Eve almost kills Nan.
Missing Granny? Just holding the book will bring her back.
The lovely, soft woman who raised me contracted lymphoma a year ago. Her decline was rapid and soon she was permanently hospitalized. Chemo and radiation only sped up the shutting-down of her body.
On a summer Friday morning, it was evident that she was not coming home. I had brought Circle of Friends, planning to share it with her. Not having read it in years, I knew it would be a joy to read it to my grandmother just as she had read it with me all those years ago. She was tired, but she could listen to one of her favorite stories and hear my voice.
“Benny was large and square, but she wouldn’t look like that in the pink velvet dress. She would be just like the fairy dancers they had seen on the stage.” These were the last words my grandmother heard. They are marked in my old tattered copy, the one that I had inadvertently taken from my grandmother all those years ago.
Feeling lonely? Turn to page 4 and start with the starred passage. I am immediately surrounded by all of my old friends. Holden. Jo. Katarina. Benny.