Review of Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah is a 2008 book about a life-long friendship between two women, Kate and Tully. There are some vague spoilers in this review.

Firefly Lane is what I call a “moms book club” book. It centers around two women and their relationship, and is a tear-jerker to boot. At its core, I like this book. There’s something cozy and familiar and nostalgic about a book that revolves around plutonic love. It’s nice to read a book about friendship love amidst the hundreds of romance novels.

However, as I analyze the narrative, there’s a lot lacking. This is a beloved book, but it has its flaws. Flaws that pile up, and for this reader, left me unsatisfied.

Recently, Netflix released a TV series adapted from the book. More on this later, but I find the series fills in the holes the book left, though the show is not perfect either.

The narrative is told in a linear fashion except at the beginning. The book opens with one of the characters phoning the other, and it’s made clear they have not spoken in some time. We then cut to the beginning of the story, which begins when our two protagonist, Tully and Kate, are fourteen. This is written in a first-person limited point of view, switching between Tully and Kate’s POVs.

The point of Firefly Lane is ultimately a narrative PSA about breast cancer awareness, confirmed by the author, Kristin Hannah, in her author’s note at the end. Which is necessary, as breast cancer continues to develop in women earlier and earlier, making awareness and advocating for early, annual screenings important. But as a story, there are some opportunities Hannah did not leap towards that would have made Firefly Lane a fuller, fleshed-out story.

This is a book about two women finding their way in the world. Tully and Kate certainly have struggles and make mistakes, but these are largely internal. There’s a huge missed opportunity to weave in gender issues, especially with Tully’s storyline. She’s an up-and-coming reporter in a male-saturated industry. Every now and then, a character comments on this, but we never see it. We never experience the sexism that’s still rampant in the media world as Tully moves up stream on her way to fame. Again, we are told from time-to-time that it wasn’t always easy for her, but we never witness it. And most of Tully’s issues seem to stem around her impatience, wanting promotions well before they are deserved. Sexism rarely seems a part of the landscape, though it would have been, especially in the 80s and 90s.

Kate chooses family life over career, but when she decides she wants more, there’s a missed opportunity to dig into the mommy gap that so many moms experience. Like Tully, Kate’s problems stem largely from internal concerns. We don’t see her bump against the wall that so many real-life moms do when attempting to re-enter the workforce. Sexism, ageism, momism—all plot points that could have created a richer narrative.

This is a book review, but I have to circle back to the Netflix TV series. While I was initially shocked that creators changed so much from the book, I feel the show fleshes out characters and plot points. Tully and Kate’s battles with sexism is finetuned where in the book, it lands flat. The complexity of being a working parent and entering employment after years away from it are made an important part of the narrative. It gives a fuller, filled out version of the story that I missed in the book.

Another choice the show makes that I applaud is to make Sean, Kate’s brother, an actual character. In the book, you can barely refer to him as a character. In fiction writing 101, you learn to never name a character if they do not play some part in the narrative. Sean never does in the book. Every now-and-then, he annoys Kate as a child, but he’s never a part of the story. The TV show fleshes out Sean and also makes him gay, providing diversity along with characters being people of color, none of which the book does. Family life is important to Kate, so it’s odd in the book that we never see interaction between Kate and Sean as adults.

Probably the biggest issue with the book I have is the handling of Tully’s rape. It seems purely like a catalyst to bring Tully and Kate together. She’s raped, and it never seems to be a part of the story again. However, when people experience sexual abuse, it tends to interfere in their lives in a myriad of ways. Everyone processes in their own way, but to never give indication of Tully’s rape being an obstacle creates a flat narrative for me.

Later, in college when she begins a sexual relationship with her professor, it was a huge missed opportunity to address this. First, Firefly Lane was written in the early 2000s; certainly, Hannah had to be aware of just how inappropriate a teacher dating a student is. Not only is this relationship in the book presented as normal, none of the other characters are bothered by it. Certainly, after being raped at fourteen by an older boy, Tully may have had some misgivings at best when her professor comes onto her. But it plays out like some steamy, sexy relationship readers should devour with glee. Personally, I found it disconcerting.

Despite Firefly Lane seeming like a Lifetime story waiting to be filmed on the surface, the book does not drift off into the sentimental. Personally, I cringe at saccharine, sappy narratives that are emotional porn. I like balanced, realistic narratives even when handling emotional material. Hannah does a great job at demonstrating the complexity of life. She could have veered into melodrama, but she remains grounded in realism.

Tully and Kate are strong characters. More complexity should have been shown with each, but the characterization of the two main characters is present and consistent through the entire story. I wish other characters orbiting Tully and Kate’s world had as much characterization, especially those close to them like Johnny. Again, the TV show is excelling in fleshing out these supporting characters. But this is ultimately a story about two friends, and that bond is cemented early on and is steady throughout the story.

The Netflix TV adaptation is far from perfect. Sarah Chalke plays Kate, and Catherine Heigle plays Tully. These casting choices are fantastic, and the chemistry between the leads sparks and flies off the screen. If I were reviewing the show, it would have a lot of flaws as well, and much of it would land flat for me. But comparing it to the book, I applaud the show for attempting to create a richer, fuller narrative. It tries to flesh out many points and provide a universal arc, even if it also doesn’t reach the mark much of the time.

I still like the concept of a plutonic love; I still recommend this book. I even teared up a bit at the end, and I rarely actually cry. But there are major plot holes in this book. I think the TV show is working to fill those holes, but I wish Hannah would have taken more time with this narrative, fleshing out characters and plots. The idea for Firefly Lane is great, but for me, the story is more like a charcoal sketch, not a color portrait.

By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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