“Fiona and Jane” is a story of personal growth, rather than friendship

Feb. 8, 2022, 8:22 p.m.

Jean Chen Ho’s debut novel “Fiona and Jane” is an arresting exploration of two Taiwanese American women’s struggles with romance, family and identity. Released in early January 2022, the novel consists of ten interrelated short stories that follow childhood friends Fiona Lin and Jane Shen from adolescence to tumultuous adulthood years marked by failed romances and strained parental relationships. Although I found Ho’s portrayal of Fiona and Jane’s friendship to lack complexity, the novel’s depiction of young adulthood and evolving familial relationships is nevertheless compelling.

Fiona and Jane grow up in Los Angeles and have been best friends since the second grade. Their teenage years are defined by late night escapades with their mutual friend Won; on weekends, they visit bars and go to parties together. After college, Fiona moves to New York, and the two friends fall out of contact. However, they reconnect later in adulthood after Fiona moves back to California and marries her first husband.

These stories alternate between Fiona and Jane’s perspectives. While Jane’s stories are exclusively narrated in first-person, Fiona’s are all in third-person limited; Jane observes, while Fiona is observed. Despite this imbalance in narration, Ho seems to devote much more space to developing Fiona’s backstory and linking it to the struggles that define much of her adulthood: financial insecurity and failed romantic relationships. The reader understands Jane by tapping into her interior monologue, yet understands Fiona primarily through what has happened to her. Although Fiona, as a character, is held at a greater distance from the reader due to the narrative perspective, Ho nevertheless allows her interiority to shine through in brief, startling moments. Ho, writing about Fiona falling out of touch with Jane in the years after college graduation, writes: “Where the sun touched her face, her body, Fiona seemed to feel more and more alone.”

Fiona and Jane’s lives are very different, and their friendship appears to be the single element tying together these disparate stories across time and place. Despite this, I hesitate to say that this story collection is truly about their relationship. Their friendship often serves as simply a backdrop to stories about finding love or navigating early adulthood. Perhaps it’s because this friendship is so insulated by the narrative that it is unclear what, exactly, binds these two friends together. Although they are nominally best friends – they frequently refer to one another as such – much of their friendship isn’t shown on the page. Are Fiona and Jane friends as adults only because they have been friends since childhood? Ho seems to make a point of clearly differentiating these two characters through various contrasts: Fiona is beautiful, while Jane is plain; Fiona is straight, while Jane is bisexual; Fiona grew up in a financially unstable household, while Jane grew up with wealth and stability; Fiona was born in Taiwan and speaks fluent Mandarin, while Jane, who was born in the United States, struggles to speak the language.

Fiona and Jane’s friendship is rarely called into question, despite their differences. Their contrasts are not so much sources of interpersonal friction as they are simply contrasting features between two Taiwanese American women. Perhaps the beauty of their friendship rests in the fact that they were able to achieve a kind of stable, static friendship in spite of these disparities. Still, I find this unbelievable, in part due to the vast amount of time that this books spans (twenty years or so, from Fiona and Jane’s teenage years to their late thirties). The two friends evolve dramatically throughout the novel – they become adults, start new careers, move to different cities, enter and exit various romantic entanglements – yet their friendship fails to evolve with them. Over the course of two decades, there is only one period of time after college graduation in which they fall into irregular contact, yet this is mended seamlessly after the two friends eventually re-enter each other’s lives. The reliability of their friendship is directly contrasted by the two characters’ strings of failed romances, particularly on Fiona’s end. These characters’ various internal struggles are manifested in failed romantic relationships, while their friendship is, surprisingly, left more or less untouched. It seems to me that Fiona and Jane are friends throughout these stories only because they must, for the sake of the novel’s continuity, remain friends, making the friendship storyline seem disingenuous.

One exception to this trend occurs in one of the final stories of the collection, “The Movers.” In this story, Fiona’s husband Aaron confesses to Jane that he cheated on Fiona with another woman, and Jane hesitates to reveal this information to Fiona. Fiona’s eventual realization of her husband’s infidelity and Jane’s complicity in it sparks an argument between the two friends, leading to a clash between the two characters’ contrasting histories and experiences. This conflict brings an air of believability to Fiona and Jane’s relationship.

Fiona feels betrayed by Jane in part because many of Fiona’s past relationships have ended due to infidelity. Jane, however, is hesitant about telling Fiona the truth due to personal guilt: Jane revealed her father’s affair to her mother years ago, permanently fracturing her family. This conflict, to me, presented one of the most intriguing dimensions of the two characters’ friendship. Disappointingly, Ho failed to capitalize on this dynamic because Fiona and Jane never directly resolve this disagreement. When we next see these two characters together again – years after the fight and once Fiona has remarried – Fiona seems to have forgiven Jane, and the conflict goes unmentioned.

Nevertheless, I found the non-friendship conflicts that Fiona and Jane face throughout the book quite compelling. Their struggles are circular in nature; it seems impossible for either of these characters to truly escape their own circumstances. The insecurities that haunt them in their adolescence define their struggles later in adulthood. Fiona, as a child, is preoccupied with uncovering her father’s identity. She is raised by a single mother who eventually reveals that Fiona is the product of an affair that she had in high school with a college student; after the affair came to light, the two of them were barred from seeing each other again. In her adulthood, Fiona finds it difficult to develop healthy relationships with men. She is cheated on by one boyfriend, robbed by another and has shorter, tumultuous affairs with other men. Although it may be simplistic to claim that Fiona’s romantic failures are solely due to her childhood, the narrative does not attempt to dispel this notion – disappointing relationships with men bind Fiona in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Jane serves as an intriguing parallel to Fiona. After outing her father’s affair with an old college friend, her relationship with her father grows strained; ultimately, he commits suicide when Jane is in her early twenties. Jane’s grief and guilt over her father’s death follow her for much of her adulthood. She talks about it with other characters, and it clearly influences each of her relationships. It is only by the end of the book that she is able to take steps to finding closure by repairing her relationship with her mother, though true resolution for Jane – if it is even possible – remains elusive. The struggles in Fiona and Jane’s lives are raw, intriguing and far superior to the seemingly intended novel focus of friendship.

Although this novel is touted as being about female fellowship, I ultimately found the individual storylines in “Fiona and Jane” to be the more compelling. Their friendship did not read as genuine, and the story was much more convincing when taken as a tale about two women navigating adolescence and adulthood along parallel, contrasting tracks, each with their own difficulties and obstacles to overcome.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

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