“For my first two years at Idlewild, I had no friends. I didn’t mind it much. I appreciated that no one paid attention to me, that I could move through the school unnoticed.” This is how we meet Nell Rifkin, a public school transfer on scholarship to the titular posh Quaker high school in Manhattan. Idlewild is the kind of place where wealth runs deep and silent: “Flaunting your wealth went against Quaker ideals, plus Idlewild parents tended to be shabby-chic trust fund artists, so it was often hard to tell who was really rich.”
Nell eventually befriends Fay Vasquez-Rabinowitz, a “lifer” who has been at the school since kindergarten. On 9/11, they form a bond when Fay has nowhere to go while waiting for her artist parents to answer the phone. The two become F&N, an inseparable, sarcastic duo.
F&N are into school theater and making fun of their peers. Nell is also into Fay, and although Fay suspects as much, it’s an unspoken part of their friendship. “For a year and a half, my brain merged into hers until I had no idea where she ended and I began,” Nell says. F&N befriend Theo and Christopher, fellow students who seem to have a similar kind of friendship. A lot of what they do is typical teenage stuff: They party a little and ditch school to eat waffles at the diner near campus. But then the friendships turn dark. Using the nascent medium of internet journals, the four try to dazzle each other with their cleverness, with predictably awful results.
James Frankie Thomas’ first novel, Idlewild, is a fever dream of a book, full of longing, regret and hormones. It’s reminiscent of such coming-of-age classics as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides yet also wholly original. Chapters shift between Nell’s and Fay’s perspectives, both as estranged adults looking back on their Idlewild years, and as F&N in 2002. Nell is especially compelling as a queer, extremely smart teenager who doesn’t try to hide anything about who she is.
Set against the backdrop of a post-9/11 nation on the verge of war, Idlewild is about the consequences of choices, big and small.