Fiona and Jane, the dual protagonists of Jean Chen Ho's virtuosic debut collection of short stories, have been best friends since second grade. In alternating perspectives, the book follows the arc of their relationship over three decades, from their childhood to their mid-30s, painting a tender portrait of female friendship in all its complexity and depth.
The girls, both Taiwanese American, grow up together in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Fiona, bookish and beautiful and full of ambition, seems destined from an early age to leave Southern California, and does eventually move to New York City to attend law school. Meanwhile, Jane remains in L.A., working odd jobs and partying while trying to make it as a television writer.
As the duo move through the milestones of adulthood — relationships and breakups, career changes, the loss of a parent, the birth of a child — Ho adeptly and insightfully traces the changing contours of their relationship. "Go Slow," a riveting tour de force, takes place when the friends are in high school. Inseparable, they spend their evenings driving around the city in Fiona's beat-up hatchback. One night, after getting drunk in a strip mall bar that serves them even though they are underage, Fiona reveals to Jane that she and a mutual friend have kissed. Jane feels "the shock of grief, that we didn't share everything, no matter how much I wanted to believe we could."
Like "Go Slow," many of these stories are propelled by secrets, the measuring sticks of intimacy, capable of both bringing people together and tearing them apart. In the heartbreaking first story, "The Night Market," an 18-year-old Jane visits her father in Taiwan, where he has returned after losing his job in California. Jane believes that he has abandoned her and her mother and has resolved to convince him to come home.
During the trip, Jane's father introduces her to a male friend of his, then confesses that the friend is actually his lover. "We'll always be a family," he tells her. But Jane, angry and confused, reveals her father's secret to her mother when she returns to California, effectively foreclosing that possibility forever. The consequences of this revelation ripple through the rest of the book, even as new secrets accumulate, creating a rich texture of loyalty and betrayal.
While they occasionally grow apart, Fiona and Jane always return to one another, each the other's constant, unwavering lodestar. Ho's writing is so vivid, witty and warm that after finishing "Fiona and Jane," readers will miss these characters like their own best friends.
Mike Alberti is a writer based in Minneapolis. His first book, "Some People Let You Down," won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction in 2020. He is the managing director of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
Fiona and Jane
By: Jean Chen Ho.
Publisher: Viking, 288 pages, $26.