ANNA, THE FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR of Juliet Lapidos’s debut novel, Talent, is a 29-year-old PhD student — friendless, single, subsisting on Pop-Tarts — when she meets Helen, a middle-aged white woman, in a grocery store line. In feigned confusion, Helen frisks herself as if searching for her wallet. Tears in her eyes, voice quivering, she turns to Anna. “Refusal,” Anna notes, “would have made me seem hard-hearted in the minds of our fellow shoppers.” So she gives in. With gratitude — again, feigned — Helen assures Anna that she will send a check that afternoon. It never arrives.
So begins Lapidos’s sardonic, witty campus novel, which resembles Bright Lights, Big City in its speed and pithy tone. A senior editor at The Atlantic, Lapidos was previously an op-ed editor at the Los Angeles Times, so her brevity and ability to engage from the outset are unsurprising. The novel’s pace is a delightful and funny contrast to the indolence of Anna, who is nearing the eighth year of her PhD. Sitting down to work on her dissertation, she must resist “the siren song” of her comforter, while her parents send her unsolicited books with titles such as Finish Your Dissertation, Don’t Let It Finish You!
After her advisor suggests that she attend a self-help lecture on efficiency by a New York Times best-selling author, a depressed Anna ventures to the campus student center for an alcohol-enhanced respite. Double-fisting margaritas at the bar, she bumps into engaged classmates Evan and Evelyn. Evan is a WASP-y overachiever in a Barbour jacket who’s celebrating an offer he has received to interview for a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago. The talentless Evelyn, by contrast, often resorts to cliché. Anna recalls how she once infamously referred to Romeo and Juliet as “a refreshingly good love story,” a critique that prompted the professor to dismiss her as an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
Evan asks Anna if she is alone, and she tells him that tequila is good company. Drinking herself to nausea, she ends up on the bathroom floor. After ruminating on the genius of the toilet — its ability to stave off “the rough truth of our disgusting animality” — Anna decides it would be a good idea to press her face against the porcelain to cool down. There is urine running down the sides, but she doesn’t care: the porcelain, she reports, is “as refreshing as a good love story.”
Because of Anna’s cynicism, Talent is a novel of cartoons. As she observes of her English-program cohort, a group reminiscent of Chaucer’s pilgrims, “These were not people but characters — lousy caricatures.” Like neon bumpers in a pinball machine, the characters impel the narrative into chaotic thrill. Lapidos contrasts Evan and Evelyn’s arrangement with Anna’s ensuing relationship with Helen, whose intrusion commences the novel’s fixation on posing the queer possibilities of female friendship.
New Harbor — the town that houses Collegiate University, based loosely on Yale — encapsulates a dreariness that compounds Anna’s isolation. Other than a few overpriced sandwich shops, the town is composed of “vacant lots and vacant storefronts”: “[T]he pleasant spots were like oases in the desert and didn’t so much counteract the city’s general dinginess as make it more obvious.” Anna’s sense of the landscape’s desolation is why Helen stands out. When she spots Helen jogging at a red light in an orange trench coat, Anna likens her to a bobbing pogo stick.
Following through on Helen’s fertile possibilities, Lapidos frames Anna’s interest in her debtor as a romantic endeavor. She gives “pursuit” to the “object of her attention.” When Anna learns that Helen is the niece of Freddy Langley, a Salinger-esque writer, she is “titillated” then “flushed.” Though his popularity compels Anna to feel scholarly disdain toward him, she is nevertheless excited when Helen reveals that she was left in charge of his notebooks, promising Anna access to obscured details of his biography and a solution to her dissertation deadlock.
Lapidos applies the language of romance to a growing bond that does not fit neatly into a category. When the characters meet again, Helen makes spaghetti for Anna and, after they eat, leads her to the bedroom, where Anna loiters in the doorway “feeling awkward in such an obviously private space.” Helen notices that Anna is in pain and orders her to sit down on the bed so she can massage her back. Initially, Anna thinks, “the physical intimacy made me self-conscious,” but “the pleasure of relief” quickly overcomes that feeling. “Every pinch” down her spine makes her “earlobes tingle,” as if in orgasm.
Some time later, sitting in a restaurant with Helen, Anna notes that they are “one of only three couples” in the establishment. But Helen is not only described as if she were a lover, she is a friend and a mother figure, too. When Anna gets sick, it is Helen who cares for her. When Anna gets upset, Helen hugs her, and she enjoys the “maternal murmuring.”
Soon, we learn that Helen is a crook: the Langley notebooks are not hers — they are housed at the Collegiate library — and she wants to enlist Anna to gain possession of them. Even as Helen’s duplicity becomes clear, Anna seems powerless to turn away. Like a chant, she repeats to herself, “I had to renounce her. Anything less was unreasonable. I should never see her again. I would never see her again.”
Of course, the persistence of her protestations makes it clear that Anna will return to her, like a lover she knows is bad.
After Anna steals Langley’s journals and gives them to Helen, they enjoy an evening together, a climax of intimacy to which Anna doesn’t allow us access. But the following day, she tells us she is hurt: “I heard nothing from Helen. Although we’d never been in daily contact, this irked me, as it would irk a young woman if the boy she’d been flirting with for months and finally taken to bed failed to call her the morning after.”
Toward the end of their relationship, she wonders, “Could it be that she’d never cared for me except as an instrument?”
The Anna-Freddy-Helen triad at the novel’s center interacts with a literary convention, outlined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985), in which a woman’s body serves as a vessel for intense male bonding. The dynamic creates a kind of love triangle. Today, the troubling term for such a relationship is “Eskimo Brothers,” which Urban Dictionary defines this way: “[W]hen two males acknowledge having been intimate with the same female and remain on good terms, the men are now bonded by having shared the same igloo at one time or another.”
Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, writes about a similar concept when he describes how the father-son relationship coheres around an attraction to the mother, a mutual identification that may present itself as rivalry.
Inverting this structure, Talent portrays two women fighting over access to a dead man’s writing, as well as a protagonist who benefits from a complicated female relationship without feeling coerced toward romance. Anna has had no recent relationships of this nature and isn’t particularly concerned about it. Past its eschewal of sex, procreation, and the straight trajectory of striving toward next steps — dating, marriage, children — their relationship’s queerness stems from its liminal nature.
Anna and Helen’s bond does not orient squarely in one space: they are kind of lovers, kind of partners in crime, kind of family. That Helen fails to satisfy Anna’s needs in any of these roles foregrounds the burden often appended to romantic relationships: the impossible expectation that one person will fulfill all the wants of the other. Rather than force the Anna-Helen affair into a single classification, Lapidos appropriates the language of all of these arrangements to break through the definitions and limitations we expect when encountering them.
In the face of Evan and Evelyn’s annoying togetherness, characters like Anna — those who don’t have such an organized sense of themselves — become endearing as they bump and spin wildly through unpredictable lives. The engaged couple snaps Anna and her fumbling pursuit of Helen into gorgeous, messy clarity. We might even say theirs is a refreshingly good love story.