If you were to casually flick through Sophie White's latest novel, you’d never guess that her last work, Where I End, a blood-curdling tale of family and neglect, scooped this year’s Shirley Jackson Award for horror fiction.
The only giveaway in My Hot Friend would be the searing honesty, and White’s astounding ability to chase down the uncomfortable and disturbing truths of living and painstakingly examine them.
In place of a decrepit mother and her resentful daughter, as in her last novel, here we encounter three women caught at their own individual crossroads and buckled by change, and White still manages to find the humour, beauty and tenderness in heartbreak.
White’s focus here is female friendship: the joys, hurts and almost imperceptible rules by which it operates. First we meet Claire, who works as a childminder and lives in a cramped apartment with her techie boyfriend. On the mend after a breakdown, she grapples with the sense that she’s being frozen out of her friend group, which is only exacerbated when the "alpha" friend, Aifric, gets engaged.
On the other end of the spectrum is Joanne, the first of her friend group to have a baby and struggling to make her friends accept that her circumstances have changed. Her baby shower descends into a bacchanal, with her friends snorting cocaine off her bump, while she cowers from her prenatal classes, afraid of facing up to her new reality.
"The men wanted to think parenthood could be 'won’, while the women were barely able to think beyond whatever symptoms were holding them hostage at any one time", she thinks at one point.
Linking the two is Lexi, the co-host of a Call Me Daddy-esque podcast, Your Hot Friend, which Claire and Joanne’s partner Bert both devour. Lexi is the sensible foil to co-host Amanda, who is referred to as "the female Joe Rogan" in a magazine write-up.
The pair live by their own warped Girl Code, maintaining an image of unflappable edginess. They perform the role of clued-in cool girls, making sure to "eat around people" as "diets weren’t on trend any more". Lexi swaps out meals for detox juices and documents her gruelling, pseudo-mindful bootcamp gym classes on social media.
This novel knows exactly who it's written for, and for when
White is incisive on how the Internet trades on women and body image, and how this has shifted in recent years, writing, "The fact was, ‘hotness ’wasn’t just a ‘state of mind’, as they’d endlessly proclaimed on the podcast. It took work."
Girl Code, or lack thereof, is what ultimately leads to their demise as friends, when Amanda – the more business astute half of the pair – capitalises on a long held secret to boost their listenership, humiliating Lexi in the process.
The scenario, though, gifts us with this zinger: "How do you explain to your dad - who still laments the end of Teletext - what being humiliated live on the internet even means?"
Comedy and heartbreak ebb and flow throughout the novel, as each woman grieves the loss of a former version of her life. Bereft at the hardship of motherhood, Joanne says, with heartrending simplicity, "it just isn’t what I thought it was going to be".
Thankfully, White is equally talented at making you laugh as she is making you cry.
The scene where Joanne goes into labour is laugh-out-loud funny, with Bert trying to spritz her with expensive facial mist between contractions. Later, when Claire infiltrates a mammy and baby meeting she provides one of the funniest moments in a book that I’ve read for a while.
Too often fiction will try to capture a ‘moment’ only for it to be borderline obsolete by the time it hits shelves. Here, White touches on the parts of modern life that still feel either under-plumbed or nascent.
The struggle to make friends in your 30s, when unpredictable nights out are largely behind you and your workplace has been stripped back due to remote working, is an eternal one, while navigating the world of relationships, parenthood, family responsibilities and careers all increasingly online is still bringing forth its own growing pains.
This novel knows exactly who it’s written for, and for when, but that doesn’t mean it’s cemented in a specific era. Swap out WhatsApp and Instagram for whatever iteration of communication comes next and we’ll still be found curled up on our beds, fretting over an unanswered message or the right passive aggressive meme to post.
My Hot Friend is published by Hachette Books Ireland