What ‘Book Club: The Next Chapter’ Can Teach Us About Sustaining Female Friendships Later in Life
Mary Steenburgen as Carol, Jane Fonda as Vivian, Diane Keaton as Diane and Candice Bergen as Sharon take a selfie in Rome in a scene from 'Book Club: The Next Chapter. Photo: Courtesy of FIFTH SEASON, LLC
A study on friendship and life satisfaction by Adultspan Journal in 2020 suggested that three is the optimal number of close friends required for women in mid-life. That figure dovetails nicely with the dramatic quadrangles in our current crop of entertainment, which centres around adult friendships old and new.
The upcoming second season of the Sex and the City continuation And Just Like That… (debuting in June), for example, teases the return of a past love. But, as ever, it seems overall less interested in the comings and goings of romance (the death of Big, the Che affair, the return of Aidan) and more into the abiding friendship between Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda — as well as enriching the respective newfound friendships they’ve cultivated in their 50s.
Similarly, when we catch up with the women of Book Club: The Next Chapter (in theatres May 12) — Jane Fonda, 85, Mary Steenburgen, 70, Candice Bergen, 77 and Diane Keaton, 77 — they’ve been friends for more than half their lives. The movie picks up more or less where the hit 2018 film left off, with the ladies either in romantic relationships or opening themselves up to the possibility. The sequel marks the passage of time during the pandemic with a montage of trendy books (Normal People, Untamed, The Woman in the Window) that the titular Book Club has “discussed” over enormous glasses of wine via Zoom, along with visual gags about the niche lockdown hobbies they’ve cultivated (and dropped).
When the four at last reunite in person, Fonda’s character Vivian is engaged. But rest assured, in this movie that celebrates female friendship, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia and the various other romantic interests are strictly peripheral support.
“How does a woman in her 70s end up getting married?” Keaton narrates, incredulous, as the quartet set off on adventure — and misadventure — for a bachelorette trip under the Tuscan sun. And before you can even say “limoncello,” Fonda is treating them to a bridal fashion montage (including a fleeting homage to Kate Middleton’s wedding gown).
A Shared History of Friendship
In her new book, You Will Find Your People, actor and comedian Lane Moore (host of Tinder Live) reminisces about watching, “in awe,” the depiction of tight-knit friend groups in TV and movies. Her book explores how to both create and nurture meaningful friendships later in life. One of her tips, to be connected and feel seen, may be an obvious one; instead of cocooning safe at home, making firm plans and spending actual time together.
The benefit of the Book Club ladies’ whirlwind Italian trip means that we, the audience, get to play tourist, treated to their whistle-stop tour of brochure highlights such as the Spanish Steps, Venetian canals and Tuscan vineyards. Escapist travelogue aside, the cast’s rapport is chief among the movie’s pleasures. It has to be. In the spirit of their heart-to-heart talks (wherein each prefaces her truth-telling with the caveat “Best friends, tough love”), it must be said: the set pieces and pacing of Book Club: The Next Chapter often feel like listening to a predictable and painfully slowed-down podcast (as though the plot and dialogue of an 87-minute movie were stretched out to 107).
What makes it worthwhile is how the fab four gamely embrace the broad humour, cheesy slapstick and telegraphed punchlines laid out for them as they treat Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist as a beacon, and see signs or omens of fate everywhere (including the succession of planes, trains and automobiles).
The palpable ease of Fonda, Bergen, Steenburgen and Keaton’s charisma and chemistry together reminded me of something that pop culture commentators Tom and Lorenzo recently observed about the Star Trek: Picard ensemble: what made the third and final season so thrilling is the combined professional and personal history of the cast, which adds to the emotional weight on screen. The women of Book Club have that shared history with one another, in previous configurations — camaraderie on press tours, talking about the importance of the enduring relationships they depict on screen — and also individually with the audience through long careers in the public eye. Like when Sharon (Bergen) asks Vivian (Fonda), “What’re you thinking, Slim?” it’s as much Bergen’s affectionate shorthand with Fonda in real life as it is the characters.
Showing Up for Each Other, Figuratively and Literally
Earlier this month, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory — again — calling attention to the impact of the ongoing “epidemic of loneliness.” What they call a public health crisis of disconnection was exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic isolation, but actually predates it. And as the findings outline, it all fundamentally and negatively affects mental, physical and societal health (the risk of premature death levels are likened to that of daily smoking). According to this latest report (and to common sense), the healing effects of social connection and community are many and varied. And while endless group chats are great, for reconnecting in the modern world the fab four in Book Club: The Next Chapter have the right idea — nothing beats spending time together in real life.
In that vein, HBO’s sleeper hit Somebody Somewhere (available on Crave in Canada) is giving us another important object lesson in cultivating middle-aged friendship. Critics have praised the Kansas-set dramedy’s nuanced portrayal of deep friendship, and particularly queer friendship, between Sam (Bridgett Everett, 51) and Joel (breakout star Jeff Hiller, 47) who went to high school together but only truly connect again in their 40s. The pair meet up regularly for 10,000-step walks or to play cards with a couple of other kindred spirits in the community.
Although only in its second season, the banal and everyday accumulation of time together conveys an easy rapport; their friendship has the feeling of a lived-in chemistry that can’t be faked. “No new people!” Sam at one point proclaims of their relationship (she’s probably read a couple of the same reports.)
Meanwhile, the new Bridgerton prequel Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (on Netflix now) features a similarly rich newfound relationship. Toward the end of the series, in the present-day portions of the period drama’s split timelines, Agatha Danbury (Adjoa Andoh, 60) and Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell, 55) strike up an intimate friendship and commiserate about the possibilities of middle-aged romance. Danbury’s opening gambit is that they know little of one another beyond pedigrees and widowhood. “It is all social chatter, marital schemes and gossip,” she posits. “You opened yourself up to show me who you are — that was brave. We mothers and aunts and leaders of the ton, we spend our time endlessly matchmaking, talking of wooing, of love, of romance — but never for anyone mature enough to truly understand what any of it means … We are untold stories.” From then on they meet up regularly to simply talk, share and be (rather than scheme and strategize).
Steenburgen, meanwhile, co-wrote the new signature song “Anywhere With You” for Book Club: The Next Chapter. Performed by the four leads, it’s not about the men but, rather, the 50 years of showing up for one another and the practiced shorthand, knowledge and affection that entails.
“You’re the loves of my life,” one of the women says at the end. “You know that.”
Book Club, Somebody Somewhere and Queen Charlotte all illustrate what the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca wrote about friendship in the first century A.D.: “Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one. There is the same difference between having a farmer harvesting and a farmer sowing.”