Book Review: The Most Likely Club by Elyssa Friedland

Title: The Most Likely Club
Author: Elyssa Friedland
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

At their milestone high school reunion, a group of friends make a pact to finally achieve their high school superlatives one way or another, in the lively new novel from the acclaimed author of Last Summer at the Golden Hotel.

In 1997, grunge is king, Titanic is a blockbuster (and Blockbuster still exists), and Thursday nights are for Friends. In Bellport, Connecticut, four best friends and high school seniors are ready to light the world on fire. Melissa Levin, Priya Chowdury, Tara Taylor, and Suki Hammer are going places. Their yearbook superlatives confirm it: Most Likely to Win the White House, Cure Cancer, Open a Michelin-Starred Restaurant, and Join the Forbes 400.

Fast forward twenty-five years and nothing has gone according to plan as the women regroup at their dreaded high school reunion. When a forgotten classmate emerges at the reunion with a surprising announcement, the friends dig out the yearbook and rethink their younger selves. Is it too late to make their dreams come true? Fueled by nostalgia and one too many drinks, they form a pact to push through their middle-aged angst to bring their teenage aspirations to fruition, dubbing themselves the “Most Likely Girls.”

Through the ensuing highs and lows, they are reminded of the enduring bonds of friendship, the ways our childhood dreams both sustain and surprise us — and why it’s deeply uncool to peak in high school.

In The Most Likely Club, four high school friends confront their old dreams as their 25th high school reunion looms, and decide together that it’s never too late to be, well, superlative.

If you’re voted “most likely to…” and then you don’t, are you a failure? What does it say about your life if you were voted most likely to become president, yet at age 42, the only office you’ve held is PTA president? Or if your classmates thought you were destined for world-famous celebrity chef status, yet your reality consists of running an afterschool cooking program for over-privileged kids?

The four women at the heart of this story had “smart-but-social” status in their late-90s high school class — not the truly popular top of the heap, but friendly enough to be be “honor roll students who still get invited to parties”. Melissa, Tara, Suki, and Priya are ambitious and eager, and they’re delighted with the superlatives they receive in their yearbook.

But 25 years later, they’re all experiencing a variety of middle-age disappointments and challenges. From divorce to career stagnation to trying to have it all, three of the four are hard-working but disillusioned, always regretting not getting what they thought they wanted. The fourth of the group, Suki, is a mega-successful entrepreneur, friends with “Elon” and “Oprah”, on the cover of Vogue, and with a book on the way to inspire others to her level of success.

The reunion stirs up their collective dissatisfaction, the sense that their potential has slipped away over the years and that they’re not actually living their best lives. Fired up simply by being together again, they commit to being the Most Likely Girls — they’re going to do something major to shake up their static lives and reach for their long-dormant dreams.

The characters in The Most Likely Club are very likable — all very different, yet each with a set of struggles that feel relatable. (Well, Suki getting trashed and on the verge of being “cancellled” isn’t all that relatable, but some of her personal details, when we finally get them, make her feel slightly more like someone real.)

Melissa’s presidential ambitions were derailed by an unplanned pregnancy. Tara’s chef career tanked after she reported her high-profile mentor for being a predator. Priya has a thriving career as a doctor and has been offered a promotion, but how can she possibly take on more when her husband, also a doctor, leaves every single aspect of caring for their home and children on her shoulders?

It’s heartening to see these women come together, shake off the sense of leaving their best years long behind, and give each the support they need to zap themselves back into action. Their friendship is lovely, and is truly at the heart of the story.

At the same time, the book certainly shows the endemic sexism that limits women’s options. From the celebrity culture that allows badly-behaving men to escape the consequences of their actions to the double-standard that applies to women bosses and more, The Most Likely Club illustrates the type of undercutting and derailment that can happen in the lives of women, no matter how smart or ambitious or dedicated to their goals.

I was afraid in the beginning chapters that I wouldn’t be able to relate, given the emphasis in the earlier parts of the book on PTA politics and school events and daily “mommy drama” — all representing a time in my life that’s definitely in the past! I needn’t have worried. The story encompasses so many aspects of women’s lives and friendships that I could see pieces of my own experiences, and those of my own friend circle, in the characters’ various story arcs.

The writing is fun and engaging, sometimes very funny, and even when addressing the more serious aspects of the characters’ lives, it never stays in dire territory for long.

The chapters are told from the different characters’ perspectives, and it’s interesting to get to see into each one’s inner lives and often, to see how their individual realities differ from what their friends believe their lives to be like. The narration can get overly judge-y at times, such as at the reunion itself:

The women were a mixed bag. Some trended down into saggier versions of their teenage selves.

Granted, this is one character’s view of things, but in a book that’s so much about women power and lifting one another up, it seems harsh to have this sort of commentary on appearance and bodies.

I was also concerned by Melissa’s over-the-top dieting in the months leading up to the reunion, which her friends eventually peg as an eating disorder — but then it just kind of goes away once she gets new focus and purpose in her life. It felt a little brushed aside, and resolved too easily.

My last little quibble is that the yearbook superlatives seem to have been hugely important for this school, but for the life of me, I don’t remember anything about superlatives from my high school days other than that we had them. I mean, I could pull out my old yearbook if I really wanted to, but who cares? Perhaps the difference is that these characters attended a small private school, whereas I was in a public school graduating class of about 650 people — so yeah, I know our yearbook had “Most Likely” listings, but I don’t remember anyone actually getting excited about them. Maybe my experience is the outlier, but in any case, this was so central to the plot yet felt very strange and foreign to me.

As a whole, though, I had a lot of fun reading The Most Likely Club. I loved the women’s friendship, the realistic depictions of their daily lives, and how empowered they all became by the end of the story. This is a feel-good book about the importance of enduring, supportive friendships, and even though some of the outcomes were way more rosy than might be realistic in the real world, it was very satisfying to see how all of their stories worked out.

I do have two other books by this author on my Kindle already, and given how much I enjoyed her writing style here, I’m looking forward to checking them out too!

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