‘Intimates’ looks at the tie that binds
Friends are the focus of this novel
Examining the notion that lovers come and go but friendships last a lifetime, Ralph Sassone’s debut novel, “The Intimates,’’ tells the story of Robbie and Maize, childhood friends who lose touch but reconnect in college. Now in their 20s and living together in New York, they each have issues with their parents and struggle when it comes to romantic relationships but have an unparalleled closeness with each other. As bosses, mentors, lovers, and even family members drift in and out of Robbie and Maize’s lives, theirs is the one tie that remains constant.
Sassone has said in interviews that his goal in writing “The Intimates’’ was to delve into the rarely-explored literary topic of adult heterosexual friendships uncomplicated by sexual tension (Robbie is gay; Maize is straight). He shows a clear preference for his high-strung, perhaps slightly obsessive-compulsive male character. Maize is slightly less developed, and the motives for her actions throughout the book are more vague. Commendably, Sassone resists the temptation to rely on stereotypes when portraying the connection between a woman and her gay male best friend. There are thankfully no scenes involving fashion advice and the like.
We’re introduced to Robbie and Maize after they’ve fallen out of touch but quickly learn that they had a brief, fumbling attempt at a sexual relationship in high school, which was, of course, destined to failure. But this abortive try sets a kind of pattern as Sassone primarily relies on the depiction of their evolving sex lives as a way to develop them as characters. The reader really begins to get to know Robbie and Maize through their respective moments of sexual awakening: Maize in her senior year of high school, as she struggles with feelings for a guidance counselor and later makes an impulsive, almost blithe decision to lose her virginity, and Robbie six months after ending a torrid affair (his first) with one of his college professors.
Robbie pointedly realizes at one point early on in the novel that “[h]e and Maize were like each other’s human diaries.’’ But what’s more significant is his next thought: “As with real diaries, certain things got omitted.’’ Ironically, it’s his and Maize’s most important liaisons that the two not only keep from each other, but also put a stop to when they feel themselves becoming too emotionally involved.
“The Intimates’’ paints a sometimes bleak yet realistic portrait of post-college life and the groping through early adulthood. Sassone deftly cuts to the core of a quarter-life crisis mindset, with Robbie and Maize constantly questioning the paths they find themselves on, both professionally and personally. It’s hard to imagine any adult reader (particularly among recent college graduates) who wouldn’t identify with at least some aspects of the characters’ personalities. In a dingy apartment in downtown Manhattan and working dreadful, dues-paying jobs, they rely on each other for unconditional, judgment-free support. “If they didn’t have romance or jobs or money or position or good housing just yet, they had their friendship. Friendship and company while they flailed,’’ we’re told at one point.
An explanation of how Robbie and Maize reconnected in college is glaringly absent (this might make for an interesting book in itself). But in leaving this out, it’s possible Sassone was hoping to convey that, often, specific circumstances are less important than the fact that two people find each other at all. While friendship is clearly the focus of this novel, it might be more accurate to say that “The Intimates’’ is actually about the idea of families, the ones we’re born into and the ones we choose for ourselves.
Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.