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In Print: friends--they're not just for kids anymore

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What constitutes a "crisis" these days? In the public sphere it's pretty obvious: terrorist attacks and the exploding national debt come to mind. But personal crises are so much more subjective. While death, divorce, or financial ruin clearly cause pain, other situations are not so clear cut. One person's private suffering is another's accepted fact of life. But self-help publishers, smelling opportunity in these murky emotional waters, seem intent on elevating more of life's challenges to "crisis" level. The result is a plethora of titles ranging from How to Survive Your Husband's Midlife Crisis to Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. Really.

A new offering in the genre is The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (Rodale). Author Marla Paul first started thinking about the topic in 1993, after moving back to Chicagoland with her husband and daughter after several years in Dallas. A native of the area who'd never lacked friends before, she found herself at 44 alone and adrift on the North Shore. "I was shocked at how hard it was, and how lonely I was," says Paul. Her self-esteem plummeted as she enviously watched other mothers chatting in clusters in the school parking lot, assuming they were the closest of friends.

Not content to sit in the house and stew (she was working from home as a writer), she signed up for yoga and got involved with her daughter's school. But though other women were polite and friendly, they didn't seem interested in getting closer. She tried getting together with other mothers, but they blew her off, and no one made a move to welcome her into their circle. Eventually she started shopping daily just so she could visit with the produce man.

Finally, increasingly desperate for female companionship, she decided to write a story for the Tribune--and later for Ladies' Home Journal--about her "wallflower status." Letters flowed in from all over the country, and she realized that she'd struck a nerve. She started writing an occasional column on the subject in the Trib's WomanNews section, and later decided to write a book.

Paul's not the first to examine friendship among women. A number of writers, including Jan Yager, a sociologist who conducted hundreds of interviews for her 1997 book, Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, have delved into the issue with greater depth. Paul's approach weaves together a collection of anecdotes and practical suggestions on how to get out of a rut to build new or nurture existing relationships.

Not everyone will relate to the particulars of Paul's own friendship crisis: She was adapting to life in a new community. She was working from home for the first time. And she was at a stage in life when she and the women around her were all juggling spouses, kids, and careers. But her book's not just for moms in the suburbs. Paul takes pains to identify the ways in which all sorts of women--single, married, childless, parenting, widowed, divorced, working, not--unintentionally sabotage their relationships with other women. (Oddly, male friends aren't mentioned.) Her language is overly dramatic at times--she speaks of "thieves" of friendship, and children as "wrecking balls"--but the issues she identifies should be familiar to many. Lives are busy, careers require moves, partners disappear, and friends tend to get lost in the shuffle.

"Women have different expectations about the number of people they need in their lives, what they do together, the emotional sharing," she says. "I don't think men have that." Ironically, many of the challenges she describes were spawned by the hard-won gains of the feminist movement. Unlike earlier generations, she notes, women today can choose marriage, motherhood, careers, and divorce at different times in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. Without a group of pals moving through the stages of life in sync, as her mother's generation had, strains arise and friendships fray.

But for all the book's good intentions, it's not particularly convincing. It's cliched and corny in parts, and even after years of writing about friendships, Paul seems oddly insecure about her own ability to hold on to them. "Women fear we have some glaring personal flaw if we're not flanked by companions," she writes. Because of this she says she was "mortified" when the story of her own friendship crisis first appeared in print.

In her advice on friendships among women, many of the rules seem applicable to marriages: be flexible, communicate clearly, don't jump to conclusions, manage your expectations. But in the end it feels like Paul has failed to manage her own expectations. She seems to expect midlife friendships to spring up as effortlessly as they did in high school. Her envy of the cliques of mothers at her daughter's school is reminiscent of a teenager who desperately wants to be part of the in crowd.

Paul puts tremendous faith in friendships to put her life in order. Friends will, she asserts, "fit into your life like the long-missing pieces of a puzzle. Once they snap into place the picture is complete. Everything else--work and connections with your spouse, kids, or romantic partner--will magically seem better." She says she's followed her own advice and has a close circle of friends around her now. Yet she remains vigilant: "You can never get smug," she warns. "Friendships can change." She tells her readers not to despair--many people are lonely at some point in their lives. For all her can-do advice, though, the prospect of another friendship crisis is something she clearly dreads.

Paul will be at Borders Books & Music, 150 N. State, at 12:30 on Wednesday, April 7; it's free. For more info on area appearances see www.marlapaul.com.

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