Unlike E.R. Frank's acclaimed previous novels, Life Is Funny and America, both prismatic portraits of urban adolescents traumatically coming of age, Friction is structurally straightforward and seems relatively tame at least on the surface.
Suburban, soccer-loving, 12-year-old Alex has everything going for her: supportive parents and a nurturing alternative school where her teacher, Simon, is also a friend. The trouble starts when a new girl, Stacy, something of a drama queen, points out that Simon is also a hottie. Next, she suggests that Simon is hot for Alex, and vice versa.
You'd think that, with all the resources available to her, Alex could figure out a way to quash this insinuation. But she's just young and innocent enough, with inchoate desires of her own, to fall victim instead to Stacy's manipulations. Insisting that "it's natural for guys and girls to like each other," Stacy spins out her soap-operatic theories: that Alex's best friend, Tim, has a crush on Alex, thwarted because Alex is in turn hung up on Simon. For all that Alex protests (the scenario strikes her as "completely weird and gross"), she finds her face growing hot, her stomach "clamped tight." She does make repeated, if vague, efforts to turn to her parents for advice, but they try to joke her out of her discomfort ("Aren't you a little old to think romantic interest is gross?") and suggest that Stacy is just "acting out" to cope with the stress of being the new kid. The situation soon gets worse much worse. Stacy always seems to be on hand to catch Simon with Alex in the midst of a friendly gesture, and she rumor-mongers relentlessly. And when these allegations come to naught (although they do alienate Tim from Alex), she escalates her campaign, claiming that Simon has molested her.
The author makes it subtly clear that Stacy's compulsion to sexualize may have its roots in abuse. Frank, whose profession as social worker lends psychological veracity to her considerable descriptive skills, provides no easy out for her characters. Friction is a bold, perceptive and ultimately unnerving account in which people get hurt, some irrevocably. It's an illuminating novel that will help young readers understand themselves and adults a little bit better.
Sandy MacDonald is a writer based in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.