Don’t be fooled by the title of Bennington Girls Are Easy, Charlotte Silver’s clever and ultimately wise first novel for adults. While Cassandra and Sylvie, the Bennington grads who make a playground out of New York City across the book’s 257 pages, fall in and out of bed with plenty of men, there’s nothing easy about these encounters—there’s a lot of analyzing and dissecting and misery and joy. In tiny chapters comprising colorful anecdotes and tidy lessons about trying to create a life in a big, ruthless city, we watch them find and lose jobs and apartments and roommates, fiancées and friends, the just-right vintage gems New York sometimes gifts the poor-but-stylish, Le Creuset pans that make the perfect omelets, themselves, and ultimately each other. Many of the characters would place the same amount of importance on that Le Creuset pan as they would the lost friendships and shifting allegiances, but that’s part of the book’s wicked deliciousness. There are plenty of reasons not to like these girls—they’re catty and selfish and lazy and their priorities are all wrong—but they’re also indomitable and savvy and full of moxie that’s hard not to enjoy.
What sets this look at young women apart from other incisive testaments to delayed adulthood like Girls or Friendship is that at times it almost reads like a children’s book, paying homage to the era we’re all apparently so loath to leave behind. The distant, all-knowing narration speaks authoritatively about the past and present in a voice not unlike the one that used to tell us about a land far, far away, once upon a time. It outlines the rules of girlhood and young adulthood the way a storyteller might declare the rules that govern a foreign kingdom: “They squealed and hugged, as girls will do”; “If you are lucky enough to attend a progressive school at an impressionable age, you will have things to loathe for a lifetime.” I had just written a note in the margin remarking on how the crisp, pert authority of the book’s telling reminded me of Madeline’s “twelve little girls in two straight lines” when the Bennington girls delighted in finding a coat that reminded them of Madeline’s own.
And the novel cannily elevates childhood itself; the kids whom Cassandra and Sylvie encounter at their occasional nannying jobs and on the sidewalks of Brooklyn have far more sense than the Bennington girls and their peers. Having failed at long-term employment, they open an adult lemonade stand, with gourmet teas and juices and overpriced baked goods, and are rather proud of their small success. It’s a little girl whose mother is buying an iced tea who has the sense to wonder, “Why are she and her friend standing out on the sidewalk and selling cupcakes? They were grown-ups.”
And they are, at times. The novel can sparkle with the spirit of a Frank O’Hara poem: The gang’s all here, New York is a series of parties in which my friends and I get into little bits of trouble that only make us love each other more, isn’t life grand? The characters are always happening upon people they know when they least expect it—run-ins that might seem a little convenient to everyone except New Yorkers, who know that New Yorkers find ways to make their huge city a small town, where you inevitably bump into friends and acquaintances at exactly the wrong or right time.
Even the characters in children’s books grow up and old after the last page. And so it is for Cassandra and Sylvie. Ultimately, the book is a bittersweet ode not to New York City per se but to the long, grueling journey from hopeful transplant to seasoned, hardened New Yorker—Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” (which these girls have surely read) for the ones who stay. Upon spotting Cassandra unexpectedly after a long separation, Sylvie marvels at how changed she is: “She had gotten that look, that look that people had when they moved to New York ... the one that had to do with a certain fearless way of carrying yourself.” Sylvie’s own wistful moment comes when she finally attains the health insurance that has eluded her since moving to New York. “The world didn’t seem quite so jagged and wild anymore, once you were insured, which also meant that it didn’t seem quite so alive. When you had health insurance, and after so many years of fending for yourself without it, the blades of knives had all turned dull, the taxis didn’t hurtle down the streets quite so fast. Why, they weren’t even quite so yellow anymore.” A certain magic is lost when you can name all the bridges, as Didion could when she decided to go back to California, or have a Blue Cross and Blue Shield card tucked safely in your wallet.
Neither girl has mastered the city—few of us ever do—but they also haven’t given up or moved back home. And that’s a kind of triumph, as the book’s final pages confirm, even if you pay for it with that loss of luster. Because the only thing more tragic than the fading of those yellow cabs is not having all the glorious late nights and making all the fantastic mistakes it takes to fade them. Tragic not least because, no matter what else Bennington girls are or are not, at these things they excel.
Bennington Girls Are Easy by Charlotte Silver’s. Doubleday.