Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men (Algonquin) opens with BFA (“best friends always”) Mary and Nix giddily planning another beach day at a café table in tourist-filled Greece. Inseparable since Kindergarten, the two have embarked on a girls-only trip to the Greek islands meant to expose Mary, recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, to the kind of wild behavior she imagines the reckless Nix is off having every weekend at college. They go in search of some suave men to woo them, but when a pair guys attempt to drown the girls in cheap wine and bad lines, something goes mysteriously awry with Nix, turning the once-passionate and dedicated friend cold. Mary and Nix’s friendship, seemingly strong, is thrown for a loop as Nix unfathomably cuts short the Greece trip, jets off to London to start study abroad, and never sees Mary again.
Mary’s quest to uncover what went made Nix, her “handpicked twin,” so suddenly reject her is made all the more difficult — both literally and emotionally — when it’s Nix instead who dies early (not Mary, the one saddled with a death sentence in her CF), and Frangello’s second chapter opens with Nix gone and buried. The mystery of what actually happened in Greece and how Nix actually died drive the rest of the narrative.
Told primarily from Mary’s perspective, A Life in Men glides through her troublesome, post-Nix 20s up until her improbable 30s, and it alternates between chapters that return the reader to the duo’s ill-fated adventures in Greece in an attempt to explain what exactly happened to make Nix withdraw from Mary. The eventual mid-novel reveal of the Nix conflict in Mykonos isn’t exactly eye-popping or shocking, but it goes a long way to explain just how much Nix loved Mary, even if her initial actions in Greece seemed to prove the opposite, humanizing the wild Nix along the way.
Although A Life in Men is a story about female friendships, Frangello creatively divides her book up by both Mary’s location and the corresponding guy who is occupying her thoughts at each particular moment (and, yes, it takes a bit of time for the first chapter, labeled “GREECE: ZORG,” to make sense). It’s a clever method of compartmentalizing a life, and it also makes Frangello’s time-bending structure easy to follow. Frangello, in fact, is so skilled with sliding between time periods that she will often reel off a brief glimpse of what will happen to other characters entire years or hours down the road, a winning and wise way to illuminate the unexpected nature of consequences, one of the book’s central themes.
Mary’s hunger for life (and to possibly even play-acting at being like the daring Nix) often translates to a hunger for sexual passion, and A Life in Men doesn’t back down when it comes to detailing her many sexual escapades across a number of years, but her freedom and desire is refreshing and honest. Illness and death have made Mary voracious, and she consumes a considerable amount of people and experiences, even as she attempts to approach her life with unshakeable love, a prickly dichotomy that leaves many broken hearts in her wake.
The book takes Mary around the world and back again — including stops in London, Kenya, Mexico, the Canary Islands, Amsterdam, and Marrakesh — and Frangello’s writing is appropriately colorful and bright. As the book expands across time and place, it also reaches out far beyond just Nix and Mary’s story, touching on tragedies of a global scale, and connections and coincidences circle back on themselves in deeply satisfying ways, with Frangello’s bold time-shuffling consistently proving its worth and power. Mary and Nix’s friendship, though separated by time and distance and death itself, remains as strong and moving as ever, and the book’s final reveal echoes its first pages with plenty of emotion and skill. With A Life in Men, Frangello has crafted a clever and compelling novel about the power of friendship.