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Toxic Friends

The first time someone described the relationship between my main characters in Resurrection Girls as "toxic", it took me aback. I'm not sure why. One of my big inspirations for the relationship between Olivia and Kara in the novel was Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye — a devastatingly beautiful novel about a toxic friendship during a girl's formative years and how it haunts her still as an adult when she returns to her home town for an art show honoring her work.

But while Kara is forceful and overwhelming as a character, she has a purpose. It takes Kara's suck-all-the-air-out-of-the-room presence to jolt Olivia from the catatonic hold of her grief. It takes someone larger than life to breathe life into Olivia again.

Officially, the word finally chosen to represent this unusual relationship in the Publisher's Weekly announcement was "obsessive", which I think is much more accurate. The relationship between Olivia and Kara is off-center. It's heavy like a lead blanket, thick like the steam of a sauna, rich like dark chocolate. It's heady and intoxicating. It's all a bit much. And while that is maybe not ideal for the average adolescent girl, it's exactly what Olivia needs. And it's perfect for novel writing.

I borrowed from the pages of my own life for aspects of this novel. Olivia's experience of grief was deeply reflective of my own. Of course, that was before losing Evelyn. That was when I thought the most tragic loss in my life was my mother. But I borrowed from my early friendship experiences as well. These kinds of hyper-bonded, B.F.F., out-of-balance dynamics were not uncommon for me. Drawing close to one friend at the exclusion of others. Possessive and pushy power struggles. I tended to moor myself to a stronger, more dominant female personality until I felt suffocated and would retreat from the relationship gasping for air.

It might be within reason to label them as "toxic" if we had been adults, but we were girls. We were too young to model perfect relationship dynamics at all times. The typical dramas would play out, squabbles would ensue, break ups and make ups, and then we'd be painting each other's nails or cutting our Barbie's hair again as if none of it went down. I think this is the pattern for many girl friendships early on. There's often an alpha female and a subordinate. I was most often the latter, occasionally the former.

I'm grateful that as an adult I've learned a lot by studying my early childhood relationship patterns. I've managed to steer clear of so many of the "toxic" friend pitfalls that one reads about online or in novels like mine. I've had a couple of friendships go belly up since adulting, but I wouldn't label them toxic. I wouldn't rush to make the other person wrong or cast a villain. I think they can be relegated to far-less dramatic and novel-worthy misunderstandings or basic growing apart. But I'll give you a secret I learned years ago that has helped me define which relationships are worth my investment. There are three fundamental things I need in any relationship for it to work. I'd argue they are three things anyone needs. And they form the foundation of trust that I build my friendships upon.

1. I need to feel safe.

2. I need to feel valued.

3. I need to feel heard.

That's it. Everything else is the fluff on top. In every relationship of mine — be it friend, family, or romance — that has failed, I can look back and see where one of these went missing, or was never there in the first place. I wish I'd had these trusty criteria in high school or even earlier. But I managed, with a few emotional scrapes and bruises to show for it. And I still have friends from that period in my life. Women I trust, appreciate, and value. We've weathered some storms together, and we're still standing at one another's side.

I'm grateful for all my friends. The ones who remain, and the ones who don't. They've all taught me something. No one in your life is an accident. And I don't really believe in mistakes. Everything is an opportunity. A lesson. A catalyst for growth. You don't have to like it, but it doesn't make it less true. It will never be okay to me that my daughter died. But even that experience holds wisdom I can't deny.

I am curious and anxious to see how the world at large receives Olivia and Kara's friendship. Will they rush to judge Kara? Will they pigeon-hole her as antagonist? Will they see her virtues like Olivia does? Will they scream at Olivia between pages, "What the hell are you doing?" Will they scratch their heads? Shake them? Sigh? I hope the reactions to Olivia and Kara are as varied and rich as their layers. No one is black and white. Not in my world, not in my novels. I like complexity, diversity, humanity. I like seeing it reflected in the stories I read, and even more, the stories I write.


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