Initially readers of this novel may have deep sympathy for Frances, one of a sextet of childhood friends reunited by a tragic death. It's Frances, after all, who listens for 80 pages as four chums, now in their 40s, unburden themselves in digressive monologues ("Well, it was just a regular Tuesday morning, Frances," or "I know it's awful to say, Frances, but if Mother were here she couldn't take this"). But then Frances, a semi-famous New York City actress, delivers her monologue, and all reader good-will vanishes. The subject of everybody's palaver is blond, blue-eyed Pete Chinnery, a bounder who has left his print on every one of "the girls."
First-time novelist Kagan, a film and television actress, has set herself a task that would daunt more seasoned writers: fashioning six sharply distinct voices. But so interchangeable are the characters that one must repeatedly refer to early chapters for the precise nature of their quirks and their relationships with the busy Pete. The monologues that take up half of The Girls have the quality of cut-rate Tennessee Williams: "Did you ever feel like your life is passing you by like the dates on the tops of yogurt cartons?" one character muses. "Someday I'll expire like an old date on a milk carton. I'll go sour and they can throw me out. What a relief that'll be." Amen. (Knopf, $23)