Susanna Sonnenberg’s second memoir, She Matters: A Life in Friendships, is a fiercely intimate look at the significant female relationships in the author’s life and how they’ve come to define her. With little regard for place or chronology, the friendships are catalogued and contained in discrete sections and chapters, from college in Boston to Paris to breakfast dates at the Catalyst in Missoula, where Sonnenberg has settled with her husband and two children. By the end, you’ll have explored more than 20 serious relationships, told in a savagely honest and self-reflecting voice by a woman gifted at describing feelings that are so often hard to define.
Sonnenberg’s sentences are bizarre and off-kilter without ever calling attention to themselves, and she writes them without clumsy metaphors or similes. “We have different styles. Patricia starts with the reports, I start with mood. I pierce, hunt for the biggest truth, restless until I’ve divined it.” She pierces! No need to completely nerd out with me on the extraordinary verbs at play here, but they deserve at least a small celebration. This is a book about a specific thing, but the writing is so good, the cadence of the sentences so soft and feminine, I would trust this author with just about any subject.
Because to be honest, I haven’t always been wild about women and their incessant bonding. Cultivating female friendships seems to me some skill that other women have, a thing that I’ve been left out of my entire life. I can count the number of girlfriends I’ve had on one hand, and every one of those is plagued with some ancient disaster or cruel neglect on my part.
So I came to this reading assignment with my own sureness of my inadequacies on the subject. And sure, a lot of the book deals with roads I am nowhere near travelling, things like having children, bonds made with fellow mothers, disappointing husbands, play dates. (Staring at her husband after an abortion, she says: “How doltish and inept he seemed filling a doorway, how puny on the other side of the bed as he stood taking off his glasses, checking the alarm on his clock. I hated his pillow.”) In these moments, it feels as though Sonnenberg is offering me unsolicited wisdom for some hypothetical period in my future.
What I didn’t expect was how unsentimental and devastating female friendships can be. When it comes to my own, most of them have expired, either because of other men, because we fought and I didn’t know how or was unwilling to say I was sorry, or because I got confused about boundaries, ruined everything with sex and then couldn’t get over the embarrassment. I’ve always assumed that these failings spoke to a fundamental flaw in myself, that it was because I was weird and girls hated me and it would be that way for me always. I’d never had another woman slow down and explain to me that these relationships aren’t as effortless as they look from the outside, that they take work and sacrifice, and just like romances, they often end. (Consider the instructive simplicity of this passage: “When she came over with Thomas, I’d leave her a glass of water on the counter. I had learned not to hold it out to her.”) The lifelong friend is the exception, not the rule, and believe it or not, I didn’t know that before reading this book.
If it seems inappropriate for me to go on about myself in a book review, well, I would argue that a good memoir will always invite you to think about your own life. She Matters completely overwhelmed me, took my brain to corners I’d have rather spent a lifetime neglecting. By the end I felt both guilty and exonerated. I read this book in two feverish days, out of necessity, because it was my job. If I had to do it over again, I’d keep it by my bedside and read one chapter a night. As it stands, I’m still recovering.