When Three Becomes Two
Exploring the complexities of life, love and loss in female friendships
By Pamela Ho
What We Learned from Driving in Winter
Three is the smallest number to bring a group into existence, the smallest number to recognise a pattern in a set, the magic number found in fairy tales, comedy, literature, witchcraft, religious symbolism, friendships. Think the three wise men, the three musketeers, the three little pigs, the three witches in Macbeth, the Holy Trinity, Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Compared to friendship pairs and groups of four or more, a friendship triad has very interesting dynamics. Because of its size and odd number, a tug on one cord destabilises the entire unit, demanding adaptation and rebalancing. It's a sensitive and fragile entity to write about.
Author Carissa Foo explores this phenomenon in female friendships in her second novel, What We Learned from Driving in Winter (the first being If It Were Up to Mrs Dada, 2018). A lecturer of literature and writing at Yale-NUS, Foo has research interest in women's writing, which may explain her desire to delve into the complexities of female friendships and to explore what happens when three becomes two, especially when the one dislodged is the linchpin of the triad.
Reading the novel made me reflect on the female friendships in my life and how certain external factors like confined spaces, road trips and trauma affect the dynamics within these friendships. I guess having spent 10 years in an all-girls school and having taken a gap year to backpack around the world with a (female) friend drew me to the book. Approaching it, I was prepared for complexities. In fact, I was looking out for them.
The story revolves around three friends: Clare, En and Gigi, who is the first-person narrator. They are Singaporean university students who end up as housemates, sharing an apartment in London. The story spans four years, from 2013 to 2017, and unfolds over four winters.
These four winters coincide with the four parts of the novel. It starts and ends (Epilogue) with the winter of 2016, which is the present day in the story. Clare had mysteriously disappeared a winter ago on a solo trip to North Yorkshire, and the "left-behinds", Gigi and En, embark on a graduation road trip to retrace her final footsteps. The other three parts are flashbacks (in chronological order), starting with the winter of 2013, when Gigi first meets Clare and En at their apartment at Sands End.
We quickly learn that Clare and En have known each other for much longer. When Gigi first views the apartment, she sees photos of the two on the walls and immediately feels like an intruder into their privacy. Gigi is the newest member of the friendship triad, she joins them after responding to their ad to replace a previous housemate who left.
I like how Foo manages to tease out the "lamppost phenomenon" that happens in triads. It usually happens when two friends are growing closer, but one has a longer and stronger history with the other. This feeling or perception of being the odd-one-out can give rise to brooding or jealousy. The wonderful thing about the Gigi character is that she overthinks. In the story, she is aware of this; but how much more interesting if she is oblivious and we ride with her overthinking from start to finish!
The thing is, we won't know better. This is where I feel Foo's choice of first-person narrative works. The only perspective we have is Gigi's, and Foo is withholding her right to be an omniscient author. This makes the storytelling interesting because Gigi's narration is coloured by her own overthinking and emotional baggage.
We are told that she lives with her grandfather and two elder brothers in Singapore, and has a missing mother whom no one wants to talk about. Ironically, her mother's absence is a constant presence in her life. There is a tender moment, early in the book, where she was still adjusting to the bitter cold of her first English winter and Clare cups her hands over Gigi's reddened ear:
There are a few tender moments like this between them, and it did make me wonder if something was blossoming between them. I could never be sure because as mentioned we only have Gigi's point of view, and while she may describe her feelings, she has not ascribed meaning to them. Also, much remains unsaid between the two friends, and therein lies another truth about life: We don't fully know even those closest to us. In so many reported suicide cases, the left-behinds often say they never sensed the pain in the deceased.
Because we know Clare dies, or disappears (as I prefer to believe), this piece of information seems quite important. Was there something going on between Clare and Gigi? And did that bother Clare because she's a devout Christian? I feel like I'm holding separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but the edges of these pieces are not clearly defined, so it becomes very hard to fit anything together.
On the other hand, I'm also aware that that is life. Our one perspective is often biased, contradictory or incomplete. Reading a book like this forces you into a position of empathy. Gigi is a character I sometimes want to kick to move her along. But I think about myself at that age and I wonder if I was really that much different.
The En character feels like a stereotypical "raging lesbian feminist". She is fearless to the point of being reckless and unreasonable (there is a scene with Gigi's good friend Audrey and her boyfriend that is quite amusing) and seems to live by Yoda's maxim: Do or do not. There is no try. Clare explains her by saying, "She believes in love, I guess." When Gigi asks Clare what she believes in and she says "Church. God. Love", I feared a moment for the book. No one wants two-dimensional characters. While En did come across as being slightly flatter, the ambiguity of Clare's character and Gigi's evolving one, and their hard-to-pigeonhole relationship, balanced it out for me.
Another aspect of the novel I find quite interesting is how intimacy in friendship is explored through a manipulation of space. I use the word "manipulation" with care because I'm not sure if it was the author's intention. For one, winters tend to hem people in. The story unfolds only through winters and largely within the confines of their apartment. Of course, there is movement outside of that common space like school or church or a café but most of their conversations happen within the four walls and on their shared bed.
SPOILER ALERT. The bed-sharing happened during the first winter, when the heater in Gigi's bedroom broke down and Clare offered her bed. The three of them ended up sleeping on one bed. Shrinking the space from an apartment in winter to a room to a bed allows the author to explore many things up close and intimately. Small spaces tend to slow down time. When a character lies in bed between two close friends, a moment can be dragged and details can be amplified. As a reader, I find those moments insightful, from the details Gigi observes to the live streaming of her thoughts. Yet, one wonders what happens beyond winter.
Did the girls sleep on the same bed in the other three seasons of the year, even in sweltering summers? And the intimate conversations shared during winters, did those develop and deepen in subsequent non-winter months? Did the girls ever pick up on stuff they left unresolved? How much of their relationship moved forward while I was stuck in the previous winter? What did I miss? I must admit my deep-seated FOMO triggered these questions.
Not everyone can deal with loose ends and ambiguity. While I do have quite a high tolerance for that, I still wish some details are made clearer, some scenes milked more, and characters pushed to take more risks. After all, Clare is gone and we all need some resolution.
The fact that Clare is young and her life so full of promise makes the loss that much harder for her close friends, who grieve not just for what she meant to them in the past, but also for what they will never get to do with her in the future. Without Clare, En and Gigi drift apart. This is possibly why they decide to embark on this road trip together to reconnect with each other and with Clare.
Clare's solo trip to Robin Hood's Bay was her last stab at freedom before returning to Singapore and giving her life to the church as a pastor in the making. Because one feels a palpable tension between religion and sexuality, one wonders if her disappearance is an orchestrated escape. As her body is never found, her friends retrace her footsteps in an attempt to make sense of what happened.
Embarking on this road trip together was also an act of resurrecting Clare's presence in their friendship she was the sole reason for their coming together. At one point, Gigi says, "What united En and me was the mission to keep Clare between us. It was never about letting her go."
While the book is filled with female characters, I don't think it alienates readers who are not female, feminist or fascinated by friendships. To me, it explores big issues handled by ordinary people, and age doesn't provide immunity, unfortunately. While reflecting on this book, I found the words of Barbara Kingsolver, in her essay 'High Tide in Tucson', quite resonant:
At the end of the day, the question is: As a reader, how did it feel to be in the company of this book? I think it offered a world I wanted to escape into at the end of a long day, it covered issues that resonated with me, and made me feel for the characters. Yes, there is much ambiguity surrounding facts and feelings, but if you can live with that, this is a story that will linger.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022