“If time was a dimension, and not a straight line, if you could look down through it like you were looking through water and it could ripple and shift, I was already opening the door,” says Addie Downs in her first chapter of Best Friends Forever. It’s been years since Addie has seen her long-lost best friend Valerie Adler. Addie and Val became instant best friends when Val moved into Addie’s neighborhood in the small town of Pleasant Ridge, Illinois. Ripped apart by betrayal their senior year of high school, they are reunited fifteen years later when Val shows up at Addie’s door asking for help.
In her sixth novel, Jennifer Weiner crafts a story full of mystery, humor, love, and forgiveness through the prism of female friendship.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. “In all my years of fuming and resentful imagining, all the years I’d carried my grudge like a pocketbook I was afraid to set down even for an instant, I’d never considered that there might be a different way of looking at the situation, another truth,” says Addie of seeing Valerie after many years have passed (on page 96). What does this say about friendships? About personal relationships? About forgiveness?
2. Addie, who suffered from years of insecurity prompted by emotional eating and teasing, often perceives Val as her antithesis. Does this make her a reliable narrator for the story of their friendship? How were Addie’s feelings about herself as a teenager based on what she thought of Val?
3. One of the major themes in this novel is the idea of transformation. Cite examples of how people transform both internally and externally. Who changes by way of fate? Who chooses to change?
4. Compare and contrast how the girls are shaped by their relationships with their respective mothers. How are Val and Addie similar to or different from their mothers?
5. Val’s father is absent, while Addie’s father is physically present, but can be emotionally distant, retreating from his family to his work space. How are Val and Addie shaped by the relationships they have with their fathers? Are there examples of either of them emulating those relationships with men?
6. From Jordan’s baby-proof home to Kevin Oliphant’s “shitbox,” describe how a character’s space, seen through the eyes of Jordan, may have impacted how you felt about him or her.
7. The novel is filled with different versions of the same stories. While investigating Dan Swansea’s disappearance, Jordan comes upon different perceptions of the same people. How does this illustrate the difference between the stories we tell ourselves and what is actually happening? Does this make it easier for Addie’s classmates to point the finger at Jon?
8. From Addie’s stay-at-home father to Patti’s Guatemalan baby, what do you think the author is saying about alternative families?
9. Why do you think Addie chooses to keep her baby?
10. In Best Friends Forever, characters’ lives are often marked by moves. Valerie moves into Addie’s neighborhood, Jordan and Patti move to Pleasant Ridge to start a family. How does the author use this notion to further the plot?
11. The balance of power often shifts between Addie and Valerie. Cite examples when the balance is in Valerie’s favor. When is the balance in Addie’s favor?
12. On page 216, Mrs. Bass tells Jordan that he has “a great deal to learn about human nature.” How is this illustrated with other characters in the novel? Is it at all? What does this tell us about the overall theme of the novel? About the people in the small town of Pleasant Ridge?
13. “I wondered sometimes whether it had to do with Jon. Maybe they hated me because they couldn’t hate him,” Addie says on page 227, attempting to make sense of why she’s a target of bullying. Do you agree with Addie? Do you think she’s making excuses for her classmate’s cruelty?
14. On page 121, Addie describes Jon as someone who would “never grow up, never have to worry about the things grown-ups worried about.” Why do you think the idea of never growing up is such a comfort to Addie?
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club Experience
1. Imagine a road trip with a long lost friend. What would it be like? Where would the two of you go?
2. Is there a long-lost friend you dream of getting back in touch with? Tell the group about this friend, why you grew apart, and what you think it would be like to get back in touch.
3. Go to a social networking site such as Facebook.com and see if you can find old friends you’ve lost touch with. Are you surprised by how their lives turned out, or are they pretty much what you’d imagined?
1. Did writing Goodnight Nobody prepare you for the facets of mystery in Best Friends Forever: the investigation, the crime, the Thelma and Louise–like road trip?
Writing Goodnight Nobody definitely helped. So did talking to the detectives who were nice enough to walk me through investigatory procedure (and to okay the liberties I planned on taking). I think the best part of researching this book was going to see the Lower Merion Township jail, which not only has a video setup for long-distance arraignments (the suspect stands in front of one camera and the judge, at home, in front of another), but also features the federally mandated handicapped-accessible holding cell, which was absolutely too good not to use in the book.
2. Some of the same negative forces in Addie’s life—Val and Vijay specifically—were also positive forces. Is that what you wanted your readers to take away from her experiences?
I think you can learn from any experience and any person, even the ones that hurt you so badly that you don’t think you’ll be able to survive them at the time. So yes, insofar as I had a message (and really, I cringe at the idea of books that try too hard to “teach” you something, and are not textbooks), the message was that you can survive anything life throws at you—a parent’s death, a friend’s betrayal, a boyfriend who breaks your heart—and come out stronger on the other side.
3. Before she dies, Addie’s mother tells her, “There’s all kinds of love in the world, and not all of it looks like the stuff in greeting cards.” It seems like this is a metaphor for the entire novel. What are you trying to get across about the nature of love, forgiveness, and faith?
When Addie’s mother is talking to her about love, Addie (and the reader) might assume that she’s talking about romance. I like to think that what she’s really talking about is Valerie, who betrayed Addie, and was herself betrayed by Addie. I think if she’d had more time, Nancy might have told her daughter that there aren’t too many people you meet who you’ll know and love for as long as you’re alive. You won’t have your parents around for your whole life, or your children…but a good friend can be forever.
4. There are some comedic references to religious faith, particularly with Val and Chip Mason, and Dan Swansea is literally bombarded by faith. Why did you include this religious component?
When I wrote this book, I was thinking about religion, and the way God (at least the God in the Old Testament) tests people. Addie is kind of my version of Job—the person who has everything taken away, who is tested, seemingly at random. I wanted to answer the question: what happens to a woman who’s an outcast to start with, and who loses everything she loves—her brother, her best friend, her parents, her boyfriend? How does she find the strength to go on? I guess the answer—she finds her strength in friendship—suggests that maybe friendship is its own kind of faith, its own kind of religion.
5. As the story progresses, Dan becomes more of a catalyst for reuniting Val and Addie than an actual problem. Is that the direction you’d intended for his character to take, or did he surprise you?
Oh, Dan! He gave me so much trouble! There was a version of the book where he did die in that parking lot. There was another version where he was kidnapped and tortured by a bunch of angry feminists masquerading as a book club (because nobody suspects the book club!). It took me a long time and about a half-dozen drafts before I figured out that he wasn’t a main character as much of a catalyst—a means to an end instead of an end in himself. Which is comeuppance enough for a former BMOC, right?
6. You’ve explored close female relationships in all of your books. What made you want to delve into the land of female friendships?
I was interested in the idea of friendship as a choice. I’ve written a lot about the relationships you don’t choose: mothers and daughters, mothers and daughter-in-laws, sisters, new mothers and babies…with this book, I wanted to write about a relationship that you can opt into and out of.
Plus, like many women, I’ve had the experience of the friend who got away—the person you thought would always be part of your life, and then isn’t, because you had a falling-out over whatever (with “whatever,” at least in my experience, usually being a boy). Or you got married and she didn’t, or she had kids and you didn’t, or whatever. I think that’s an experience that many women have, and I was really interested in seeing how it would play out in a novel.
7. In Best Friends Forever, similar to some of your previous titles, the darker plot twists—cancer, obesity, rape, neglect—are peppered with humor. Do you consciously balance those elements as you write?
Actually, not really—it’s not as if I’m thinking, “ooh, this part was really dark, better throw in a joke,” or “time for a serious scene to balance out the funny”! I think it’s just the way I’m wired, that my stories unfold with both humor and pathos…and I think I’m wired that way because of my own life, where, with every awful thing that happened, my mother would always tell me, “You’ll laugh about this someday!” or “It’s all material!”
8. At one point, Addie is stripped of all her personal relationships. Do you think that’s what she needed to engage in the world around her?
Again, I saw Addie as my Job—the woman who was going to lose everything in order to rebuild a better life (actually, maybe instead of Job, she’s the Six Million Dollar Woman—“Gentlemen, we can rebuild her!”).
9. We get our first glimpse of Addie’s newly designed home through the eyes of Jordan. He describes it specifically on page 223 as a “place made for pleasure.” What kind of research did you do regarding home design? Do Addie’s design choices reflect your own?
I did the usual—looked through a lot of home magazines, thought a lot about the kind of choices Addie would make—and because she’s an artist, she’d probably make better choices than I do. But I wanted there to be a clear contrast between her home and Jordan’s—specifically, I wanted him to live in a place that was totally alienating, where he couldn’t open the cabinets or unlock the oven, and for Addie’s place to feel very inviting and open.
10. The end of the novel leaves a lot of room for a sequel. Are you thinking of continuing Addie and Valerie’s story?