In “Many a Little Makes,” the novella at the center of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s collection, Likes, the middle school iteration of Mari looks at the “radiant creature” who is her best friend, Imogen, and wonders: “How did she ever get so lucky?” That feeling, like many captured in Bynum’s stories, is at once ordinary and extraordinary, magical and quotidian. Almost every woman I know had that friend—the one who was downright ethereal in their perfection, whose sheer cool defied comprehension. It’s been over 20 years since I last saw my Imogen, but I still remember trading secrets in her lofted double bed, getting quite literally lost in her impossibly large house.
There’s a reason we fall hard for our adolescent friends. During puberty, we teeter between our families of origin and the wider world: when our intense attachment to our parents fades, middle school friendships fill that void. At our friends’ houses, we taste the tantalizingly unfamiliar as we discover other ways of conducting the business of childhood: mealtimes and bedtimes, parent negotiations and sibling relationships.
And, indeed, it’s not just Imogen but her home and family that spark Mari’s sense of wonder. The backyard is a “woodland garden,” complete with a whispering creek and a stone bridge. The pantry is kept “magically full” with the tastiest snacks. Imogen’s parents are charmed rather than annoyed by the girls’ antics. Oh, and then there’s Imogen’s “golden, unattainable” older brother, Nicholas. If it sounds as though Mari has wandered into fairyland, that’s the intent. And her tenure there feels as tenuous as that of any hapless knight who has stumbled upon Avalon.
Though their friendship is grounded in the delights of 1980s teendom (mall culture, Duncan Hines, the Smiths), it shouldn’t surprise us that their relationship also has a few undercurrents of chivalric romance. Legends and fairy tales still form the urtexts of childhood, whether we’re getting them from the Brothers Grimm and T.H. White or Marvel and Disney. And these tales, particularly those of the Ren faire variety that permeate Likes, offer little guidance when it comes to navigating female friendship. Our heroes are forever forming Fellowships and Round Tables before stampeding off on quests, but our beleaguered leading ladies tend to have—at best—agnostic relationships with other women. Absent mothers, nasty stepsisters, and downright diabolical stepmothers abound, but gal pals? Not so much.
When Imogen befriends Bree, a new student from a less affluent town, Mari’s mother issues a prophetic warning: “Three can get complicated.” Three is the number for wishes and love triangles, the Fates and Charlie’s Angels. That Margaret Cho joke springs to mind: whenever you have three girlfriends, there’s the sweet one, the smart one, and the ho.
At the beginning, however, there isn’t a ho. Just three friends balanced by their “evenly distributed” differences across race, class, and appearance. Mari and Bree become allies in the messy world of menstruation and teenage self-construction, while “Imogen belonged to another species altogether, like a wood elf among dwarves, or a human escorting hobbits.” It almost goes without saying that Imogen is also the only friend who is thin and wealthy and white. (Mari is affluent and Japanese; Bree is white but poorer than the others; both are chubby.) Indeed, the enchantment of Imogen’s family isn’t limited to the ethereal realm of Arthurian legend. It contains the very material magic of another myth: the American dream.
Fairy tales hinge on transformation. The penniless immigrant pulls himself up by his bootstraps and becomes a titan of industry. The unsuspecting squire draws a sword from a stone and turns into a king. The ash-covered stepdaughter gets a fairy-godmother makeover and marries the prince. Adolescence is no different—our bodies literally change shape. And it is Bree’s metamorphosis that starts to destabilize the girls’ triad: her hair turns “red overnight” and she grows “confoundingly slim.” This newfound beauty—which just so happens to adhere to the ideals of Western European lore—blurs the distinctions between Bree and Imogen, threatening to turn Mari into the outlier. The lone dwarf among wood elves. No wonder she feels the “occasional pang of abandonment.” After all, if Cinderella can ensnare a prince, why not Bree?
It is this tension between poison and enchantment, comfort and discomfort with the legacy of Germanic folklore in America that Bynum harnesses so brilliantly in Likes. These stories do enchant us—they do give us a way of understanding what is mystical and ineffable in our increasingly secular lives. But entangled as they are with patriarchal ideals, class hierarchies, and white beauty norms, that enchantment has a toxic edge.
Class boundaries aren’t easily flouted. When 14-year-old Bree sleeps with 17-year-old Nicholas, the upper middle class close ranks against her. Mari is cut by Bree’s daring and secrecy, while the adults rush to protect the wealthy white boy from any taint of scandal. (And by “scandal,” let’s be clear, I mean accusations of statutory rape.) As Mari’s mother prepares to call Imogen’s parents, she laments: “They opened their home to her.” Perhaps this is the real betrayal: the lack of gratitude from a nobody—a scholarship kid from “Ruh-vee-ah”—who’s been embraced by the beneficent elite.
Ultimately, “Many a Little Makes” is about how stubbornly these childhood legends stick. Decades later, middle-aged Mari grapples with the “recent news,” likely the Kavanaugh hearings: “The past looked different now, and especially the sex.” Even her own mother, Mari learns, came to “repent” her role in Bree’s banishment. But try as Mari might, her own view is fixed. Although they’ve reconciled, Bree remains the “bad apple,” “the agent and initiator.” The ho in Margaret Cho’s trinity.
Yet the story retains a strange consolation. Despite the odds, the mythic Bree, “the girl [Mari] remembered,” is “active, desiring, incautious.” Things 14-year-old girls are rarely allowed to be in real life. And perhaps that fairy tale is too powerful to abandon. •
Join us on January 20 at 5 p.m., when Bynum will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Likes with your fellow California Book Club members.