Martha Moody's Best Friends

Oberlin College, 1973. Clare is a Midwesterner, Ohio born and bred, from middle-class parents. Her college roommate Sally is a rich L.A. girl. Clare can't wait for the unrest and demonstrations

Jun 6, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Oberlin College, 1973. Clare is a Midwesterner, Ohio born and bred, from middle-class parents. Her college roommate Sally is a rich L.A. girl.

Clare can't wait for the unrest and demonstrations she'll certainly find on campus, and she's sure her Californian roommate is excited too. Unfortunately, it's the '70s and no one wants to demonstrate anymore. And when Clare meets Sally, she's surprised to find that description "apple-cheeked" come to mind.

As a first effort from Dayton author Martha Moody, Best Friends is impressive in size and scope. Through the eyes of Clare, the novel follows the relationship of these two women for 20-plus years as they realize they're not as different as they first thought and build a friendship that rivals kinship.

Moody confirms that her characters are more similar than different.

"They both have lots of foibles and blind spots, and I think that that's very human," she says.

"I think they're both in different ways socially awkward, which makes them kind of endearing and kind of makes them need each other in a way."

After college, Sally heads back to California for law school. She settles into her own practice specializing in women's issues. Clare decides on a medical program in Akron and ends up specializing in AIDS issues.

The women remain close through frequent phone calls, and Clare often finds herself on the red eye to L.A. Moody is able to squeeze so many years into the story by telling it thought snippets of conversations from the calls and visits. The reader catches up on the characters' lives as they catch up with each other.

The set-up of the story is straight from Moody's own life. She and her best friend Jill met as college roommates and have remained close even though Jill now lives in Arizona.

"We really are very close and we go for periods longer than Sally and Clare where we don't talk to each other," Moody says.

She admits to writing in a little bit more flexibility by making Clare single and giving her enough income to flip back and forth between California and Ohio.

Moody's writing starts out simple when the women themselves are much simpler. As the story builds, Moody begins chopping her scenes in to small bits that fluidly move between past and present. As a result, the book becomes more comfortable and engaging the farther into it you get.

"Hopefully, if any book works, the reader kind of makes it more complex in their mind with the memories of what's gone on before," Moody adds.

The novel's male characters play important and often unsavory roles. Clare and Sally repeatedly find themselves enamored with the wrong man, often allowing him to temporarily take the place of their best friend. They always come running back.

Both fathers in the story go to extreme lengths to give their daughters a comfortable life. Eventually Clare discovers some unpleasant things about her otherwise doting father that she has to deal with. When he dies, Clare finds herself spending so much time in California that Sally's father becomes like a substitute until she finds out some even worse things about him. Clare is strongly affected by the information and has to decide how and if to tell Sally.

"After I finished it, I did think that they (the fathers) both were sort of guilty in certain ways for things they did, not for wholly bad motives," she says. "It's interesting to me how people can go astray for not necessarily bad motives, but something happens and they end up rationalizing things to themselves and doing things they really shouldn't."

Moody introduces Sally's father's faults only after letting the reader get a good sense of who he is and how many good things he's done for his family. We see him when Sally is at college asking her to buy duplicates of all her books so he can follow along in her classes. He'd never gotten a college degree.

"One of the things I was interested in, I wanted to get a character in that hopefully the readers would sympathize with but would 'go bad,' " Moody says.

She's been writing since college, where she focused on poetry.

"They didn't have any fiction at our school really," she says. "The teachers were poets at that point. I did well in it, but I never really understood poetry."

She traveled to South America with her Spanish teacher to interview and translate for Latin American female poets. What struck her when she was down there wasn't a love for poetry.

"There was just a lot of very evident poor health, so I came back thinking I'd go to nursing school instead of writing school," Moody says, adding that she's been a physician in private practice for 15 years now.

But she hadn't given up writing all together.

"I started reading fiction and I realized I understood fiction, and I started writing that," she says.

Moody somehow found time to work full-time, care for her four sons and write this almost 500-page novel.

"When I was writing the book it was tough," she says. "I was writing two paragraphs a day."

She's since quit her practice and spends her days with her kids, and of course she writes. "I've got two (books) in the cooker now."

The hectic pace of her previous schedule seems to have crept its way into Best Friends. Sally is a real baby machine and ends up with five kids by the end of the book. In an amusing scene, she's trying to start her day and everything's going wrong and she can't even remember which side she parts her hair on. She eventually gets out her driver's license as reference.

"That's kind of the way it is for a lot of women," Moody says. "And I think they have in many ways lives that are pretty typical. A woman these days is trying to balance children and work."

Moody doesn't mind being a writer based in sleepy Dayton, Ohio.

"It's fine," she says with a laugh. "I've always written very much by myself, and until I left my medical practice there was hardly anybody who even knew I wrote."

Her built-in audience of ex-patients, however, is perhaps a little on the conservative side.

"A lot of my patients are 60 or older and a lot of them have read the book, which is very sweet," she says. "Even people who are shocked by the book are polite about it."

Moody thinks there are perhaps a few things about her writing that surprise people who know her: "I think because of the sex in it and it's got kind of a liberal tilt that people probably didn't realize I had."

As the story winds its paths and the two friends find their way both together and apart in their lives, Moody leaves them at a point of upheaval.

"I knew that I wanted them to reach some kind of resolution, just in terms of some sort of realization of what their friendship was like," she says.

And they've been dealing with upheaval most of their lives anyway. They're just better at it now.

Martha Moody signs and discusses Best Friends Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood.