Gah. I find this kind of reasoning really frustrating - not because I believe my favourite authors are above criticism, but because assuming that all women have the same experiences and that characters that fall outside what you deem to be the rule must be “unbelievable” is extremely problematic and smacks of essentialism. The title alone implies this universality of experience, as if women were a monolith.
Barkhorn certainly has a point that there could be more representations of female friendships in mainstream “literary” fiction - it would be especially nice not to see this result in the books in question being labelled “women’s fiction”. But her wording really bothers me, and her reading of the novel is completely at odds with my own. I didn’t think Madeleine’s relationships with her college friends and with her sister were characterised by spite, for starters. And I think it’s worth bearing in mind that her isolation and lack of friends is one of the things that make her miserable - the novel not only acknowledges this, but deals with it at length.
There are certainly novels out there that imply that women are incapable of being friends with one another because they’re “backstabbing” or “bitchy” or whatever other misogynistic slur you can think of, but this is not one of them, I don’t think. And it troubles me that Barkhorn’s main criticism is not that this adds to a trend of lack of representation (which would be fair enough, though more as a general comment than one on this particular novel’s merit or lack thereof), but that women like Madeleine must not exist. If we automatically assume that any novel that portrays an isolated woman is doin it rong, we’re creating further limits for what women can do or be, further rules concerning what’s “natural” or “normal” female behaviour, which is not exactly helpful.
I’m a woman not far from Madeleine’s age, and for most of my life I haven’t had very close female (or male) friendships. This isn’t because I hate other women, but because I’m not exactly a pleasant person to be around for long, because close relationships are very difficult for me, and because circumstances in my life have isolated me. I guess I’m not all that believable. Whoever made me up must not have understood women.