by Angelina Eimannsberger
The smashing success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about the friendship of Lila and Elena is a symptom of female friendship’s high currency in current American culture. In the same cultural moment, we can observe how impactful female friendship can be by looking at the trouble and strength of the power friendship between Hilary Clinton and Huma Abedin .
On Such a Full Sea is not based on female friendship as a main plot line. However, Fan also experiences meaningful female encounters, for example with Loreen and Penelope in the counties or with pathologic Miss Cathy and her imprisoned girls in the charters. In particular, Fan is drawn into a fraught but warm relationship to her brother Liwei’s wife Betty.At the end of the novel, Betty saves Fan from Liwei’s attempt to trade in her unborn baby and its potentially revolutionary, C-free genes to make his multi million profit come through. She frees our unmoored heroine, because she has learned a lesson from her.
Just before Liwei’s scheme is meant to kick in, Betty cannot let go of Fan. Betty helps her indulge in a bath, in nice clothing, and in deep conversation. She asks her friend and sister-in-law, “When you were out there, in the open counties […] you must have felt very alone anyway, right? […] All the things that had made you you, made you Fan, there was none of it. It was all gone, and maybe, in your mind, gone forever […] And when it was like that, Betty went on, her beautiful eyes disked wide and dark, it must have been frightening, so frightening. I can hardly imagine, but did you feel something else, too? Something on the other side of all that? I’ve been feeling very funny of late. It’s nothing like what you probably experienced but I can’t stop feeling it. I can only describe it as this amazing and cavernous emptiness I’m floating at the center of and that I found completely terrifying at first, like I wanted to die, but now I’m not so sure […] Do you know what I’m talking about?” (396, emphasis mine). Without the reader or Fan knowing that Betty is about to give up her marriage, her money, the maintenance of her luxurious charter existence in order to free Fan and free herself, we don’t entirely understand what Betty means. Fan, however, can appreciate the sentiment: she “did understand the feeling, though she told Betty she wasn’t sure, not wanting to say that she’d always had it, even when she was back in B-Mor, even when she held Reg’s hand tightly in hers while they were walking in the park. She was as free as she had believed, and always had been. Only in leaving [B-Mor] was it confirmed.” (396/397)
The bond that Betty established with Fan has helped her jump into the terrifying something else –also known as freedom– that Fan has known all her life. Freedom is not divisive: the feeling for Betty has been catalyzed though friendship and included Fan’s blissful relationship with Reg.
It is part of On Such a Full Sea‘s politics of generosity that it invites us into this moment of bonding, power, and solidarity without being too on the nose about it. There’s no need for girl to replicate society’s anti-girl hate. Women such as Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and Janet Mock who use their fame and voice for Hilary Clinton do in contemporary American politics what Fan and Betty do in the charters: see other powerful women not as your enemy that threatens you but your comrade.
Chang-Rae Lee: On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead Books 2014).