The Worst of Everything

How Could She BY Lauren Mechling. New York: Viking. 320 pages. $26.

The cover of How Could She

As someone who lives uptown, I’m used to qualifying that my boyfriend bought our apartment for cheap in the late ’90s. My desire to lightly establish my adjacent moral authority—he’s not a banker, slumlord, or trustfunder, he’s just from New York—is as inevitable as strangers wanting to know my cross streets. Where on the Upper East Side? is a follow-up question I’ve come to expect, and it elicits the information people nod at in knowing recognition, and saves them from asking uncouth questions: How close to the park? How far from East Harlem? Where would gossip be without light taxonomy?

How Could She, the tenderly caustic debut novel of veteran magazine writer Lauren Mechling, made me aware of how inured I’ve become to New Yorkers keeping tabs, taking stock, and sizing up. This is a book about white literary Brooklyn, and Americans who start every conversation with What do you do? and have trouble finishing one without letting you know where they went to college.

Caroline Walker, Reception, 2013, oil on linen, 70 7⁄8 × 98 3⁄8".
Caroline Walker, Reception, 2013, oil on linen, 70 7⁄8 × 98 3⁄8". Courtesy the artist and Grimm Amsterdam/New York

How Could She is brilliantly titled. The question is really: How could she do that to me? This is easily recast as a class question. Who can afford to be cavalier? Who gets to thoughtlessly turn down jobs, be impolitic and impolite, cheat, get drunk, change careers? The quantity of backstabbing gossip at parties and happy hours in this book would qualify it as a comedy of manners, but it’s lite on laughs. Mechling doesn’t slide into parody or satire, but she doesn’t shy away from the details that allow it. An afterparty for an opening is populated by “the rakish Icelandic yogurt impresario . . . ex-boyfriends from her first few years in the city . . . the daughter of a famous gallerist . . . he did something with microfinance and socks . . . a self-appointed intellectual.” It’s just a fact that a perfectly curated party by a consummate hostess in an enviable brownstone will raise certain questions: When did everyone get the same Moroccan rug? Was the hostess drunk? Why do complacency and success look so similar? It’s so hard to impress people! That’s the thesis of the book.

It’s impossible to think about this novel without remembering The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the ur-text about the flimsy moral territory occupied by Brooklyn Writers Now. Adelle Waldman made me think that women could push men to think about their behavior, perfectly capturing the urges we sublimated pre-#MeToo. Listening to Nathaniel recap dinner parties in his head was a stroke of literary genius. So rarely do we get to see the defense mechanisms whirring in real time: the man weighing his actions against women, kneading his transgressions into palatable sound bites for his friends and for himself. Mechling’s book does not delve into these heady conversations, à la Sally Rooney. Politics are headlines and small talk, not something you can have. (A character worries about “the Trump fifteen.”) Mechling doesn’t bother with Brooklyn intellectuals, just the media class. Hers is a more honest approach to how boring party conversation really is, how surface and unintellectual our thoughts. Petty insights are the backbone of this book. Mechling focuses on jealousy motivated by vanity and cruelty. Quick judgments about appearance make for perfectly rendered scenes. It’s as if every woman in the book looks out at a party, “studying the crowd, in her cravenly anthropological way.” Mechling clocks every bar lit by mason jar, every shoe (“her only concession to her unemployed status was a pair of clogs”), every bad idea by a mid-level publishing executive (“All the staffers had gone to Ivy League schools and had the social skills of staplers”), every quip at a party (“We should all be forced to spend a week of our lives as a puppeteer”). The novel does not render an emotional world that brings us to our knees. It’s more like she’s making a case for rejiggering chick lit as the cruelest genre.

At the center of How Could She is a friendship triangle. Three women writers who shared a first job at a magazine in Toronto are now on the verge of forty in a dying industry. At the beginning of the novel, it seems as if the quality of their real estate is the best indicator of their happiness. Naive and at times ineffectually polite Geraldine still has a roommate. She’s living in Toronto, a lesser city, in a “weird job for which she was exquisitely overqualified,” churning out a specialty magazine about celebrities. Her friends all moved to New York long ago. For years, Geraldine has played the passive and financially helpless go-between who maintains a relationship with Sunny (who is rich) and Rachel (who is hardworking), her two more successful friends who have inadvertently grown up to behave as rivals. They have one thing in common, besides living in Brooklyn with their handsome husbands and freelancing for the same magazines: pity for Geraldine, whose failed relationship with their former boss at the magazine has left her “more prone to emotional injury,” as if she’s “tuned in to a radio frequency she’d once had the luxury of skipping over.” (Her friends, once the language is available to them halfway through the novel, frame her as a #MeToo casualty.)

The novel begins to churn when Geraldine suddenly moves to New York, and asks her friends for a place to stay. Sunny does not want to host Geraldine, despite having the larger apartment. (Sunny jauntily explains in her Christmas letter that she and her husband finally “moved into the townhouse that Nick’s owned forever but never really dealt with.”) Despite having a cramped apartment and a child, Rachel takes Geraldine in—whether out of obligation or genuine friendship it’s unclear. (When Rachel’s husband tries to persuade her to leave New York later in the book, he sees it as an opportunity to leave behind “an apartment we’re rapidly outgrowing” and a situation where their child is “watching her mother find new reasons to get jealous of everybody she knows.”)

Both Rachel and Geraldine are flies drawn to the sickly sweet perfection of Sunny’s life, right down to her husband’s shirts, “made for him by his Singaporean tailor.” “Even Sunny had married somebody who always looked stiff in party pictures, with his groomed hair and rictus smile,” Rachel thinks smugly. Still, Sunny is “by all standards, measurable and not, winning the game of life.” She has a successful career as an illustrator, a husband, and no money problems. When Geraldine fantasizes about confronting Sunny about something, she imagines wading through “a throng of Sunny’s bubble-dress-clad admirers at one of her painfully curated all-women get-togethers” to do so. A nineteenth-century trope that Mechling observes is damning the perfect Sunny with a name that points to her fate—forced cheerfulness and fakery are her undoing. Sunny, we find out soon enough, is not that happy; in fact she’s struggling to keep up the veneer and ease of being herself.

The turning point is a shift in allegiance. It used to be that Geraldine flitted between both of her friends, mediating information between them. After Geraldine hung out with Sunny, “Rachel would listen to Geraldine’s recaps and chew over the details like a dog sucking marrow out of a bone.” But when Sunny and Rachel come face-to-face in an editorial meeting, what starts out as an antagonistic few minutes of sizing each other up (“To go by what Rachel was wearing to today’s meeting, her money troubles had yet to let up”) turns on a dime. One conversation, and the ice melts. They are the first to admit they have no reason not to be friends. When Geraldine finds out about their new friendship, on Twitter, she feels blindsided and betrayed—and exposed. Her role as prized confidante is over. The lines of communication, once so finely drawn, have been crossed. What are they saying about me?

This feeling of alienation from her friends comes just as Geraldine finally finds her footing professionally. She starts a podcast with a millennial cohost. That the book is plumped up by a clever satire of office life makes sense: Jobs, like friendships, are hard to find, easy to lose. It’s the perfect parallel. Both inspire envy in New York and telegraph success. I found this book completely satisfying as an office novel (much like I felt about Ling Ma’s Severance). Mechling nails the different work personalities and career trajectories. “Egos didn’t ship magazines,” thinks Rachel, a classic workhorse good at not attracting attention. “Few possessed her talent for executing the vision of those ranking above her while buoying the morale of all those underfoot,” Mechling practically opines.

When Sunny and Rachel lose their jobs at the magazine, they start taking meetings with editors planning new projects. “It’s going to be smart writing for feminists who aren’t, you know, babies. And it’s not about babies either. It’s about style and life—but not lifestyle, because that is so tired. Just substantial, honest takes on the things smart women like us care about,” explains an editor launching a new blog. “It’s not a menopause magazine. Think of it more like something for all the women who are exiting their fertility windows.” The sharpest observations are reserved for women’s media: “Barb had covered the war in Afghanistan, whereas Rachel’s beat was Rachel.” (Mechling was laid off from Vogue, where she is still a contributor.)

There’s an airlessness to the plotting, which is to say the justice exacted on the characters is swift. What can happen in a year? So many novels seem to say: a lot. In How Could She, the only fates available are doled out like candy: Geraldine is rewarded for her clueless optimism about the job market in New York, and gets a job in the only growth industry in publishing. Rachel chooses to leave New York with her family, electing for the more practical real estate options in Toronto. Sunny up and leaves her house and her husband, a choice that probably will manifest itself most clearly on her Instagram grid, not her moral compass, which might have smashed long before the advent of social media.

From what I can tell, they all stay friends. A word that Mechling wrings of all sentiment.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.