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The Real Mystery: Why Don't Friendships Get What They Deserve?

Friendship in mystery and in life.

Most of the time, I'm a disciplined person. I get my work done on time, I show up on time, and in decades of teaching, not once have I ever stepped foot in a classroom without being completely and totally prepared. (Of course, that's different from being uniformly successful as a teacher, but the preparation is the controllable part).

I started with the qualifier, "most of the time," because there is a big exception. If I get engrossed in an engaging work of fiction, I just don't want to put it down until I have read the whole thing. So to keep my reputation for conscientiousness intact, I often try to save my good reads for vacations and long flights.

Recently, I've been trying to develop, intellectually, the themes that have grown out of my research and writing on singles. There are at least two. One is what I wrote about last time - the increasing importance, to many Americans, of time spent alone, and how that time is often experienced as sweet solitude rather than searing loneliness.

The second is the role that friendship now plays in structuring our relationships and our lives. In our laws, politics, religions, and in the cultural stories that we tell, it is the married couple relationship (and secondarily, the parent-child relationship) that is honored, protected, and sentimentalized. Friends are marginalized as "just" friends. The model that celebrates the marital relationship and dismisses friendship, though, no longer corresponds to the way we actually live.

Now that Americans spend more years of their adult lives single than married, friendship is more important than it used to be. As family size decreases, so, too, do options for family care in old age or any other age - fewer people have siblings or adult children to care for them (or if they do, those family members may live many miles away). Again, it is friends who come to the rescue.

Legal scholars are beginning to take note, and they are raising questions about whether the place of friendships in law and public policy needs to be reconsidered. I've been thinking about the issues, and reading law review articles, to work up to some writing I want to do on the topic. But I have no legal training. Have you ever seen how footnotes are organized in law journals? It is enough to make you proud of APA style.

I needed a break, so I violated my rule of not picking up a book for fun when I have something else due. At the top of my stack was Asking for Murder, a mystery sent to me by the author, Roberta Isleib. If I'm going to read about crime, I typically read true crime. But Isleib knew how to draw me in. The protagonist, she told me, was a psychologist who just happens to stumble into crime-solving, and what's more, she's single. Plus, Isleib assured me that she is not one to write stereotype-perpetuating tales. So, why not?

Before I finished the first page, I already liked Rebecca, the main character. If she were real, I'd want her for a friend. In the book, Rebecca had her own friends, and in the opening chapter, she was headed to the office of the one to whom she felt closest - Annabelle, a fellow therapist. They had plans for lunch that day, and then for dinner on Friday.

The lightness of a warm spring day and lunch with a good friend slowly builds to stomach-turning fear as Annabelle does not answer the buzzer at her office door, does not pick up her cell phone, does not pick up her office phone, and on and on until at last, Rebecca steps into the bedroom of her friend's bungalow, where Annabelle lies bloodied and savagely beaten.

Rebecca, of course, calls 911, comforts Annabelle while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, and gets in touch with Annabelle's sister, who has a distant and troubled relationship with Annabelle.

Rebecca and Annabelle have an agreement to attend to one another's patients in times of duress, and so as the mystery unfolds, Rebecca is seeing Annabelle's clients as well as her own. She is also tending to Annabelle's home and her pet, and trying to stay on top of her friend's medical care as well as the progress of the case.

But when she gets to the hospital to visit her friend, she is not allowed in. Annabelle's chilly sister gets an automatic pass, because she is family. Rebecca, though, is turned away by one hospital staff member after another. Says she to one of them:

"It doesn't seem right that you can't visit your own best friend when she's ill."

So there it was. I was reading this mystery as a break from pondering the serious matter of the place of friendship in the law, and I suddenly realized that I was absorbed in a dramatic fictional rendering of that very issue.

There's a lot to like about Asking for Murder. I'm a research psychologist, not a clinical psychologist, so listening to the therapist-talk throughout the book was like having access to some secret shrink society. Rebecca has a thing about food (as do I), and as she talked her way through the culinary offerings she was preparing for herself and her friends, I was ready to dig in. I also liked the writing, the evocative descriptions and the sensibility. I even liked the mystery, which I guess was supposed to be the point.

Most of all, though, I loved how the author really got it about friendship and single life.

Rebecca's friendship with Annabelle was the emotional heart of Asking for Murder. Both women had men in their lives, but the romantic storylines were secondary. Their friendship wasn't syrupy, but real. For all of their closeness, and despite being in the business of healing by revealing, Rebecca and Annabelle had kept significant secrets from one another.

Isleib also gets it about how other people don't get it about the role of friendship in people's lives.

When Rebecca, who has been shut out of Annabelle's hospital room, continues to ask Annabelle's sister Victoria for updates, Victoria admonishes her to "take a closer look at your friendship with my sister...Honestly, I think you need professional help."

Rebecca has a warm relationship with her own sister Janice, who is married. But Janice, Rebecca recognizes, is more interested in the success of Rebecca's romantic relationship than Rebecca is. Not because she particularly likes the guy (she hardly knows him), but because she looks forward to socializing with Rebecca in a foursome. Clearly, it hasn't occurred to her that Annabelle is the natural fourth, or that there is nothing wrong with the number three.

Anyway, having read this most recent book in the mystery series, I'll probably now go back and read the first two books. After I finish that work that was due.

In the meantime, let's call this the opening chapter of the Real Singles in Fiction book club. Toss aside all of those books out there featuring ditzy chicks or horny, slovenly bachelors. In the comments section, nominate your own favorite singles in literature.

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