Do you truly know Los Angeles? Then you roll your eyes at the stereotype of the blonde in her red sports car whipping down the Pacific Coast Highway. You think of the Persian culture of Westwood and where to go for the best bibimbap—and almost affordable rents—in Koreatown. You might know that just before you hit East Los Angeles you’ll make your way through Monterey Park, L.A.’s ground zero for the largest Taiwanese community in the United States. This Los Angeles is where Jean Chen Ho’s vibrant collection of short stories, Fiona and Jane, largely takes place. It’s loosely centered around a fifteen-year friendship between two sharply different yet undeniably connected Taiwanese-American women. We first see them together—and that togetherness becomes a rare sighting—as besties flying down the freeway in Jane’s junky car, searching for bars that don’t “card” and men who just might believe these high schoolers are in college.
Jane’s excellent grades and move to New York trick us into thinking that we know where this friendship is going: party girls pulled apart as one flounders back home and the other soars. Indeed, there are early indications that this disparity will play throughout the stories: we see that Jane is brainy and beautiful; tall, silent Fiona is nicknamed “Jane’s bodyguard.”
Jane does get educated and makes it to Manhattan while Fiona stays put. Yet despite leading largely separate lives, neither of these fascinating main characters forges a simple path. The two women careen around their respective cities like pin balls flicked into errant missions. In Fiona and Jane, there are men and women drawn to them, leaving them, and left by them. There is frank and funny sex talk, career dreams and setbacks, a shared hope for a happy ending.
Just when you think the title of the book is misleading, when it seems this friendship fades in the background of so many other interesting journeys, Fiona and Jane pop into one another’s lives to scold and support. They are the kind of “best friends” who often give one another that title even when small betrayals and larger disappointments erode its stature.
Early in their friendship, Jane realizes its limitations: “It was the shock of grief, that we didn’t share everything, no matter how much I wanted to believe that we could.” What the two women do share is an understanding of what it is like to be both Taiwanese and American, to love your heritage while chafing at its demands. Fathers appear again and again as a dreamlike presence, but it is their grounded “Mahs” that mean the most, who pass down both guilt and loyalty.
Complicated female friendships that morph and bend over time are a mainstay of both light and literary fiction. Each generation deserves its own take on this genre. Fiona and Jane offers us universal truths nestled under layers of fresh perspectives. This winning effort reminds us that a history-filled friendship is the place we long to park, again and again, after all our foolish joyrides down the road.