Female friendship has been the topic of so many novels, it’s hard to believe that there’s anything new to say about it. Well, to be fair, Diane Hammond’s Going to Bend doesn’t have much new to say. But the novel, which centers on a pair of best buddies in a small Oregon town, is so charming and its characters so real and likable that it more than makes up for what it lacks in freshness.
The chums in this case are Petie Coolbaugh and Rose Bundy, friends since childhood. As is the norm for this kind of story, one of the women (Petie) is tough and cynical and the other (Rose) is warm and softhearted. They both have the obligatory trouble with men (Petie’s marriage has gone stale; Rose is in love with a fisherman who leaves every spring to go back to his boat). But what makes the story special is that Petie and Rose seem like real people, with their own faults and strengths and talents.
They are more than man troubles or sad backstories (the father of Rose’s teenaged daughter ran off on her and never looked back; Petie’s father was an abusive alcoholic). Hammond treats the relationship with tact and tenderness. She doesn’t belabor how important the friendship is to the two women, but presents it as a fact. They may fight or disagree and even keep things from each other, but their bond will never break. By the book’s end, it’s clear that these women are more than friends: soulmates, in an odd sort of way.
Though the relationship between Petie and Rose is the book’s centerpiece, there’s much more to Hammond’s richly drawn tale. There’s Schiff, the boisterous but secretly lonely Pepsi salesman who strikes up an odd, touching relationship with the prickly Petie. There’s Jim Christie, the loving but sullen fisherman Rose loves. And, though they are sprinkled throughout the novel, there are Rose and Petie’s children, each of them utterly believable.
Perhaps the weakest parts of the book belong to Gordon and Nadine, the fraternal twins who move from Los Angeles to Oregon and open a café where Rose, and briefly Petie, work. Gordon and Nadine are probably the most predictable characters – he is dying of AIDS and she is consumed by caring for him. However, Hammond throws us a curveball (spoiler ahead) by not having the book end with Gordon’s death, as would occur in a lesser novel. In fact, there are no real neat ends here. Hammond’s tale is satisfying, to be sure, but readers are sure to wonder about what waits for Rose and Petie long after the book is done.