"The False Friend": Goldberg's New Novel a Fascinating Trip Through Truth and Memory

This is a guest post by Sarah Routman, Executive Director of Hillel at the UofM. Sarah once harbored dreams of combining photography and writing and travelling the world to record her experiences. For the moment, she is settling on travelling through the pages of the books she is reviewing for TC Jewfolk. 

“Because it was impossible to intuit the future significance of any given moment, it was always a good idea to be your best possible self, increasing the odds of not wanting to disown whatever inadvertent history you created.”

– from The False Friend by Myla Goldberg

You may already be familiar with the name Myla Goldberg. She is author of the best-selling debut Bee Season, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Borders New Voices Prize among other honors—later adapted for the screen. I confess to not having read that book, but I just finished reading Myla Goldberg’s The False Friend (Anchor: Paperback, Aug. 23, 2011). It was an easy, quick read and though it took me a few days due to other responsibilities, it was not because at any point I wanted to put it down.
At once, the reader is along for Celia’s journey down memory lane, captivated and ready for a good read. It’s not just the interesting story, the suspense as Celia searches her past to find the truth, but for all the things it encourages you to think about your own past, and your present, which will one day become your past, that make The False Friend hard to put down.
From the beginning, I was immersed in the intrigue of looking back and remembering: what if hindsight isn’t 20/20, but instead is a completely different picture than the one we’ve carried with us for many years?
Myla Goldberg likes to involve the reader as an active collaborator and participant when she writes. She accomplishes this brilliantly in The False Friend. Right away, I was standing next to Celia as she returned to her childhood home.
We see her childhood through her questionable memory, and because everyone else is sure that the way they remember things is how it really happened, we quickly get caught up in trying to unravel the real ‘truth.’ As we meet each of the characters and listen while they reveal pieces of the puzzle to Celia that she may not have wanted to face, we feel her pain as we remember our own less than perfect moments from childhood.
It was, in fact, one of Myla’s own darker moments that in some ways inspired this book. She had been picked on as a child, but in one particular memory that she shared with me, she was the aggressor, something she is not proud to admit. It was a small memory of throwing a pair of scissors at her then best friend. Though the scissors hit the girl, she didn’t tell on Myla. It troubled Myla when she thought about it many years later and as it was around the time of Yom Kippur when this memory cropped up, she tracked down the childhood friend to apologize. She was surprised to find that the girl did not even remember the incident.
For Myla, the fun thing about being a fiction writer is that it is not necessary to stick to all the details. You have a lot of leeway to start with an idea, or in this case a memory, and to play with it, build it into its own story. Written as a retrospective, The False Friend deals with the interconnectedness of memory and truth, and also each of them separately. There’s actually quite a bit to ponder and discuss beyond the plot of the story.

And if you would like to hear Myla discuss her book, then definitely consider coming to the Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area next Thursday, January 19 at 7:00 p.m as part of the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair to hear Myla Goldberg read from her book.

Myla is not your typical writer. She has a performance background – she wrote, directed and acted in college theater and has been in an Indie Rock Punk Band in Brooklyn, called The Walking Hellos for the last 8 years.
Not every writer is a good reader, but in this case, Myla does it all! She typically records all her own audio books and I’m guessing it will be a special treat to hear her read from The False Friend. Even more exciting to Myla, though, is the opportunity to talk with the readers. She loves the exchange of ideas, hearing the questions that her book inspires, and not just sharing her answers, but hearing what readers have to say, as well.
The book is set in an imaginary town, but it is cribbed from areas of upper state New York where Myla’s husband grew up. Myla was fascinated by the area as she visited over the last 10 years. Like many other areas of the country, Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicot, once manufacturing cities, represent a fallen empire. Filled with grand architecture, these towns became the backdrop for the story. As the characters are looking back on the people they once were, Myla saw each of these towns looking back on the place they once were.
As the reader, I found myself wanting to visit these small places from another time. Nostalgia was all over this book, in all its complexities.
I am not often so struck by a writer’s use of language that I take the time to copy a sentence or two for future contemplation. Over time, though, I have made it a habit to jot down little excerpts if there is something in a book that moves me, takes me to another place. It’s not just if the language is particularly descriptive or well-spoken. It has to move beyond that into being something that even removed from its current context, would not just make sense, but speak to me, cry out for further contemplation.
In this quick moving novel, I was compelled to stop several times to mull over sentences.
Read and reread, allowing myself to be transported to all the places a sentence or two could take me, shouting its relevance well beyond the experience of Celia, now 31, looking back to her 11 year-old self.
I’m already onto my next book, yet, I find myself still living with Myla’s characters, walking with them as I think about how memory and perception really do shape us.They have given me a lot to ponder. I’m sure if you read the book, you will find yourself on your own journey. I hope it’s a good one!

*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received a free copy of  ”The False Friend” in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the book for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a glowing review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…

(Photo: Bob Owen)