The Friendship Test
by Elizabeth Noble
(Harper, $14.95, PG) ISBN 0-06-077774-5
***
The typeface of this British novel is generously sized, so those of us who havenít yet admitted they need reading glasses will have no need to hold the book at armís length. Even if you are farsighted, you wonít want to keep your distance from this book; itís as cozy as hot tea on a cold winterís day, even if itís also as predictable as a sunrise. †

The Friendship Test is ostensibly the story of four women whose friendship dates back to their Oxford years in the mid 1980s, but the focus is primarily on only one of the founders of the ďTenko Club,Ē American expatriate Freddie Valentine. Almost two decades after the women declared their undying friendship, Freddie desperately needs their support. Adrian, her husband of twelve years, has just coolly confessed to a long-standing affair over the phone, and before she can even process this bombshell she learns that her father, back in the States, has passed away. †

Tenko Club founding member Sarah was killed three years ago in a tragic auto accident, but the remaining two members volunteer to fly back to Boston with Freddie. Warm, nurturing Tamsin, whose only flaw is her unfortunate habit of naming her children after her favorite authors (Willa isnít bad, but poor Homer and Flannery!), is a natural comforter, while stylish, professional and prickly Reagan can provide legal advice. The emotional aid turns out to be more critical, as Freddie learns some devastating secrets about her judgmental, distant father and long-absent mother. When a surprise declaration of affection arises from an unlikely source, itís almost too much to handle. Freddie has to come to terms with her difficult upbringing and confront a friend who threatens to sabotage her happiness before she can embrace the true love she deserves. †

Author Elizabeth Noble, whose debut novel, The Reading Group, was a British bestseller, writes a gentle, thoughtful and occasionally humorous story. The destination is predictable but the journey is amiable. My major concern was the excessive number of rapid point-of-view changes, sometimes within the same scene. Iím not sure I needed to hear Adrianís thoughts, although they facilitated a more three-dimensional portrait of the clueless, yet not evil, philanderer. †

The story also would have been stronger if Tamsin had something to do other than be wise and compassionate. What if that perfect Australian nanny, who takes care of the kids so Tamsin can fly off to America for weeks at a time, started putting the moves on her unsuspecting husband? Meanwhile, successful but unhappy Reagan is one of the most complex characters in the book; she also deserved a more fully realized storyline. † The book ends with holiday toasts to true love, family, friends and children. You could do a lot worse than this charming novel, especially as we endure those last dark days of winter. One final note: the novel was originally published in Britain as The Tenko Club, but the title was changed to the more generic Friendship Test in America. The official sisterhood is named after Tenko, an old television drama about women in a P.O.W. camp, and often one of the characters will speculate how someone theyíve recently met would behave under such stressful, dangerous circumstances. Altering the bookís name deprives it of one of its few distinguishing features compared to hundreds of other Womenís Fiction novels, but I guess the editors at Harper thought that the original title was too obscure for American readers. †

--Susan Scribner


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