Tales of universities have provided long reading lists for modern lovers of cultish books. From Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the hallowed journeys of further education—in the classroom and beyond—have provided hours of reading joy to a bookish community. Perhaps somewhat greedily, I am guilty of that being enough for me to pick up a book, always happy to see experiences that help me make sense of my own in fiction.
And beyond the campus, this book had many of those for me to bound between. The joy of four protagonists is the variety of experience they each bring to the world of the book. The Other’s Gold segues through adolescence and coming-of-age into the starkest realities of marriage and motherhood, via sexual assault, political uprisings, and fertility issues. There’s a lot packed in.
For the most part, this makes the novel pacy and gripping. Although each part of the story is focused on an incident in each of the four girls’ lives—an accident, a kiss, an accusation, a bite—Ames’ takes us between perspectives seamlessly, and this carries us forward. It reads like a thrilling page-turner, and book-cover comparisons to ‘a Big Little Lies origin story’ make sense. We are eager to learn of the ‘worst things’ these four girls on their dorm room window seat, identities barely formed; the things that are going to test the strength of the ties of their friendship.
This works well when the girls are young, when we’re getting to know them and their world and we are swept up and we want more more more. We are young alongside them, placed effectively, thanks to Ames’ compelling, precise writing style - back in our own late adolescent mindsets. But as the girls get older, the split perspectives do not seem to provide enough. As they become adults, their personalities taking on more nuance, I craved—perhaps selfishly—a parallel increase in depth in the way they were actually written. Adult actions require adult intentions, or at least adult explanations.
There are gaps, as can be to be expected with a scope so grand that takes four equal narrators from children to parents, and they seem taped over in the way you might introduce an acquaintance at a dinner party: defined neatly by a singular career or desire, or lack of either. Though the novel is broad and far reaching, in this area I felt like there was room for more. Still, perhaps this is a comment more on me than the book itself. I was left with the feeling that the characters were not letting me in; like I was outside of their little clique. I wanted to call up the girls, arrange a coffee and ask them what was going on. At the very least, I wanted to shake them into doing the same for each other. I wanted to find the depth of friendship we were promised.
That’s not to say the novel itself doesn’t remain compulsive reading. The events in the second half of the novel, in particular, are wildly and madly unpredictable, in a way that can only be described as surreal. They upend expectations of what a book about adult women and mothers can include. They sit so far from the norm they will no doubt leave some people turned off in disbelief, while others will be quietly, grimly unable to put the book down. Perhaps others still will feel seen, comforted and validated.
The novel, in the latter half in particular, when the actions of the characters take on the weight of adulthood, forces you to question at what point, or perhaps at what age, a secret becomes the thing that divides you rather than the thing that binds you together.
Darkness, and the gory hold our secrets have on us, can too often be glamorised in fiction, but not here. As these four women come to terms with what the others have done, we see the most fully realised parts of their adult selves. We believe they have finally grown up. And then what began as a commonly told tale of kindred spirits meeting in a closed, beguiling academic setting, matures as many of our lives have. Not into a fairytale friendship, but into a more realistic one, grasped meetings between the daily storm of a rushed urban reality (we’ve moved, somewhat inevitably from a quiet campus to New York City by the story’s close). The roommates’ friendship is not unwavering and bright and does not leave the reader with a jealousy for their interwoven lives, sceptical about how four busy people can stay so close, how they have the time for endless brunches and group holidays. It reminds us instead of the friendships we keep despite the hidden depths, rather than because of them. It more insistently forces you to question why they are still friends at all, pushing the very boundaries of how intimacy from a formative age can force us to overlook the worst in those around us. As I finished the book, I wasn’t sure if the friendships could continue beyond the final pages, which made for a bittersweet reading experience.
I was prepared to be moved by this book, and thanks to the divine timing of where I was in the story as I read it on the morning of my wedding, woken up early by stress dreams and butterflies, I was not disappointed. As we are known to do, it’s likely that every reader of this book will associate themselves with one character more than the others. I myself am ‘a Lainey’, and was hit hard by Ames’ depiction of this character’s emotional gravitation to her partner, to the extent that I almost swapped out a planned reading in my wedding ceremony for a particularly poignant passage that brought tears to my eyes.
The Other’s Gold is a good addition to the TBR list of anyone looking for a page-turner that evolves beyond its university roots to explore deeper themes of womanhood, friendship, and trust, and one that meanders down unexpected, beautifully bizarre side paths into territories unexplored as it does so.
The Other’s Gold
By Elizabeth Ames
354 pages. 2020.