Friendships made in childhood have an intensity like no others, as they’re often rooted in immediate and sometimes inexplicable feelings of connection. This kind of deep relationship is the subject of Yiyun Li’s novel The Book of Goose. Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.
Fabienne and Agnes grew up together in the countryside of postwar France. Memories of those days are reignited when Agnes, now married and living in the United States, hears from her mother that Fabienne has died in childbirth.
As girls, they played together endlessly, with the dominant Fabienne always taking charge. When Fabienne suggests that they write a book together, Agnes complies, but it’s not a true collaboration: Fabienne dictates the story to the more docile Agnes, who also has the better penmanship. Their book is a collection of frankly told stories about the harshness of country life, and it attracts the attention of the village postmaster. Interest spreads as far as Paris, where the book is published solely under Agnes’ name, and the young author becomes a minor celebrity. Agnes is then sent to finishing school in London, where she falls under the tutelage of the controlling Mrs. Townsend.
Now, years later, Fabienne’s death offers Agnes the opportunity to come to terms with the life she created for herself, so far away from Fabienne’s calculations and Mrs. Townsend’s grandiose expectations.
Told by Agnes in brief, succinct chapters, The Book of Goose is an elegant and disturbing novel about exploitation and acquiescence, notoriety and obscurity, and whether you choose your life or are chosen by it. Through her characters, Li studies the sway of manipulation, like the power-shifting game of rock-paper-scissors—a motif which frequently pops up throughout the novel. And though Agnes never stops longing for the friend whose brilliance provided her life with a sense of wholeness, the reader might be excused for believing that it was Agnes’ game to win all along.