Can We Still be Friends, by Alexandra Shulman, Fig Tree, RRP£12.99, 304 pages
Alexandra Shulman’s first novel is a tale of twenty-something female friendship spanning the years 1983-87, a time of big shoulders, bold Thatcherism and brick-like mobile phones on the City streets.
Can We Still be Friends begins with Kendra, Annie and Sal fresh out of Sussex University. Kendra is the earnest daughter of wealthy Notting Hill parents, and works in a run-down youth club in north London where she falls for her female boss.
Annie, aspiring to marriage and children, has instead ended up as a successful PR. Her professional life gives us some of the book’s best bits – Shulman, who has been editor of British Vogue for the past 20 years, offers up a great 1980s pastiche when she describes the perfume launch for Jean-Jacques Gratinard’s Sinistre.
“‘We’ve got to knock the spots off Dior’s Poison,’” briefs the PR company boss Tania, “her new Claude Montana jacket with its dramatic shoulder pads contrasting oddly with those silk trousers she loved … The effect was of a character in a children’s card game where you matched the top halves of people to their bottom halves.”
In this world, everyone drinks champagne cocktails or Perrier (“nobody would offer anything other than Perrier nowadays if they wanted to be taken seriously”).
Salome (Sal), a trainee journalist on a right-leaning mid-market paper, is the most compelling character, at sea in the men’s world of Fleet Street and a terrible drunk in all senses. There’s a sensitive tale of Sal’s descent into alcoholism and eventual recovery nestled here amid the product placement. I could have read a whole book about Sal – and perhaps we will see her again. Shulman has left herself the option of bringing her open-ended story of friendship, and of a fast-changing London, into the 1990s and beyond.
This book’s plot involves the three women being drawn in, personally or professionally, to the fate of the north London youth club. But Shulman’s real gift is a fashionista’s gimlet eye for remembered detail.
The result is a fun summer read with lots of “ohh” moments of painful recognition for anyone over 40. (I had long forgotten that “Can you get the ashtrays?” was once, incredibly, an everyday request in our office lives.)
Despite the verve, Shulman doesn’t bring the venture off entirely successfully. The prose is surprisingly clunky at times and the relentless period detail, with its attendant label-checking, sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. (“There’s a Jasper Conran private sale next week where we could find you some nice pieces. His grosgrain jackets would look terrific on you,” says Kendra’s mother, improbably.)
But, even with its flaws, Can We Still be Friends works well as a page-turner, making me feel nostalgic for a time when youthful female friendships had to be worked at, face to face over a bottle of wine and some nasty pink taramasalata, rather than simply maintained with a few mouse clicks and a “share” button.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts