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The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship
by Jeffrey Zaslow

Published: 2009-04-21
Hardcover : 320 pages
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48 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 11 of 24 members
From the coauthor of the million-copy bestseller The Last Lecture comes a moving tribute to female friendships, with the inspiring story of eleven girls and the ten women they became.

Meet the Ames Girls: eleven childhood friends who formed a special bond growing up in Ames, Iowa. As ...
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Introduction

From the coauthor of the million-copy bestseller The Last Lecture comes a moving tribute to female friendships, with the inspiring story of eleven girls and the ten women they became.

Meet the Ames Girls: eleven childhood friends who formed a special bond growing up in Ames, Iowa. As young women, they moved to eight different states, yet managed to maintain an enduring friendship that would carry them through college and careers, marriage and motherhood, dating and divorce, a child's illness and the mysterious death of one member of their group. Capturing their remarkable story, The Girls from Ames is a testament to the deep bonds of women as they experience life's joys and challenges -- and the power of friendship to triumph over heartbreak and unexpected tragedy.

The girls, now in their forties, have a lifetime of memories in common, some evocative of their generation and some that will resonate with any woman who has ever had a friend. Photograph by photograph, recollection by recollection, occasionally with tears and often with great laughter, their sweeping and moving story is shared by Jeffrey Zaslow, Wall Street Journal columnist, as he attempts to define the matchless bonds of female friendship. It demonstrates how close female relationships can shape every aspect of women's lives - their sense of themselves, their choice of men, their need for validation, their relationships with their mothers, their dreams for their daughters - and reveals how such friendships thrive, rewarding those who have committed to them.

The Girls from Ames is the story of a group of ordinary women who built an extraordinary friendship. With both universal insights and deeply personal moments, it is a book that every woman will relate to and be inspired by.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1.At the end of his Introduction, author Jeffrey Zaslow repeats a question posed to him: “Could a man ever really understand women’s friendships?” How would you answer that question? Do you think Zaslow succeeded in his attempt to portray and explain the Ames girls’ long-lasting bonds?


2.Also in the Introduction, Zaslow explains the basis of the Wall Street Journal column that gave birth to this book, saying, “The column focused on why women, more than men, have great urges to hold tightly onto old friends.” Do you agree that women stay closer to friends than men do? Why or why not?


3.“E-mail has been a great gift to the Ames girls’ friendship, as it has to many other women’s friendships in recent years,” (page 76). Talk about how technology has changed friendships in the past decade or so. Are you in more regular or better touch with friends because of e-mail, texting, Facebook, Twitter, or IM? Have you formed new relationships—or, reignited dormant ones—as a result of social networking sites?


4.Did you identify with one or more of the Ames girls, either in adolescence or adulthood? If so, what did you have in common with them?


5.“Male friendships are often born on the athletic fields,” (page 54). What do you believe comprises male friendships? Do they form through activities like sports, or through something different? Do you know men who are part of a group much like the Ames girls’? If so, how does the male group differ from the female?


6.Which of the Ames women do you think strayed farthest from her Midwestern upbringing, or defied the expectations of someone raised in her hometown?


7.Cathy tries to explain the attachment between the women as one borne out of shared roots: “We root each other to the core of who we are, rather than what defines us as adults—by careers or spouses or kids. There’s a young girl in each of us who is still full of life,” (page 96). Do you think it’s common for people who were close childhood friends to maintain that bond in adulthood?


8.“Researchers worry about this current generation of girls. Studies suggest that the average girl today is likely to grow up to be a lifelong dieter, to have a distorted body image, and to be emotionally scarred by cliques,” (page 114). How has adolescence changed from when you were young to what a teenager experiences today? Do you share the concern that the new generation of girls faces a tougher time than young women of bygone eras? What societal or cultural factors might account for this shift?


9.In Chapter 10, Marilyn’s sister explains to her: “Men who’ve confided only in a spouse or a girlfriend can feel lost after a breakup or divorce, because they lose their only confidant. But for a woman with close female friends, the end of a romantic relationship is more bearable because they haven’t lost their entire support system,” (page 146). What do you think of this supposition? Can you think of examples in your own life that prove this statement to be true, or that dispute it?


10.Talk about the mysterious death of Sheila, and years later the cancer that claimed the life of Karla’s young daughter. How did the Ames girls come together in each case? What are the ways in which having such a tight-knit network of friends helps people through crises like these? A broader question: When friends supplant family, is that a good or bad thing?


11.Do you believe the closeness the girls experienced in childhood was in part a result of growing up in a small town like Ames, Iowa? Would they have been as tight a group of friends if they came of age in a big city, like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles? How much of a factor was Ames in the women’s relationships?


12.Do you have a collection of friends similar to the Ames girls? Who is in your circle? What does this group and its bonds mean to you? From the Publisher:

1.Zaslow was deeply conscious of the fact that he was a man trying to tell a story about women. He writes, “I admit that I sometimes asked the Ames girls questions that were silly, obvious, or naïve… And yet I also think that being a man gave me a wider canvas…. I made no assumptions. I asked. I rephrased. I tried to comprehend” (p. xv). How well do you think he succeeded? Do you agree that a woman writing about the Ames girls might have been distracted by her own beliefs and experiences? Or might she have considered aspects of their story that Zaslow missed?
2.Did the story of a particular Ames girl resonate more with you than the others? If so, which one and why?
3.After her high school graduation, Jenny’s insurance executive father predicted, “in fifteen years, one of you girls will be estranged from the group. Two of you will be divorced. One of you will still be single. One of you may be dead. You have to expect that. Because that’s just how life works” (p. 22). In some ways he was amazingly prescient, but he was way off in terms of how close the girls would remain. How might his predictions have been worded if they had been made by one of the girls’ mothers instead?
4.Despite the religious beliefs of some of the other Ames girls, Kelly “does not hide the fact that she had an abortion when she was twenty years old” (p. 86). Has an issue like abortion ever threatened one of your friendships? In retrospect, are you satisfied with the way in which you and your friend(s) resolved the issue?
5.Zaslow talks about how Ames, with its Big Sister/ Little Sister program, “was actually a town that, early on, formally recognized the value of friendship, especially among girls” (p. 106). Discuss how fostering female friendships ultimately benefits a community.
6.After being singled out for criticism by the other Ames girls in high school, Sally told her mother what had happened. She supported and advised Sally, but did not try to interfere. Sally remembers, “this was a great lesson in parenting for me. It is not our job, as parents, to go to coaches, teachers and other parents and try to make everything run smoothly for our kids…. Our job is to help our kids function in the [imperfect] world” (p. 122). Do you agree with her assessment? Overall, have parenting styles changed for the better or worse over the past few decades?
7.Zaslow writes, “researchers worry about this current generation of girls…. A 2008 study titled ‘A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem’ labeled girls’ low self-esteem ‘a national crisis’” (p. 116). What are some steps that parents and communities should take to stem this crisis?
8.“Few of [the Ames girls’] husbands have long-standing groups of close friends, with decades of history together, whom they confide in and turn to week after week” (p. 101). Yet, just about every year they take over care of their houses and children so the girls can attend a reunion. Do most men appreciate women’s friendships even if they don’t enjoy those kinds of bonds themselves?
9.“Bottom line: Women talk. Men do things together” (p. 102). How does this statement bear out in your own experience? Do you have any close friends of the opposite sex? In what ways, if any, are those friendships different than those with people of the same sex?
10.“For middle-aged women, trying to figure out who they are, one path to self-reflection comes from getting in touch with who they were” (p. 103). Have you taken advantage of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to reconnect with people who knew you at an earlier point in your life? Share some of your experiences.
11.From Rod Stewart to Hall and Oates and Grease to Love American Style, the Ames girls’ shared experience of 70’s and 80’s popular culture bolsters their connection to one another. Why is it that the music and media of our youth is often more meaningful than what we enjoy in our later years?
12.It took Justin, Jane’s husband, to convince her that taking time out to go running would ultimately benefit her two daughters by allowing them to “witness a woman trying to stay fit—and taking time to do something for herself” (p. 216). Did Jane’s “aha” moment offer any insights into your own life or that of your own mother?
13.The Ames girls abide by some unspoken ground rules: “They don’t brag about their husbands’ jobs or incomes. They talk about their children’s achievements, but not in a gloating way…. They make every effort to be with each other for key events in their lives… If they have things that need to be hashed out, it all remains in the group” (p. 288). If you have a long-standing group of friends, what are the “ground rules” that have kept you close?
14.If you are a woman, is The Girls from Ames a book you would recommend to a man? If you are a man, what drew you to read this book? In what ways is Girls a story that transcends gender?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Q&A from the Author:

Q. How did the idea for The Girls From Ames come about?

I write a column for The Wall Street Journal about life transitions – those moments when life takes a turn. Back in 2003, I wrote a story on the transitions in women’s friendships, and received hundreds of emails from women eager to tell me about their longtime friends. As I read all their comments, it got me thinking about my own three daughters, and the friends they’d need to carry them through life. Eventually, I decided to find one group of women and immerse myself as a reporter in the “biography” of their friendship. I called a bunch of the women who’d written to me, including Jenny Litchman. She told me about the 10 girls she grew up with in Ames, Iowa.

Q. How did you decide that of all the emails you received, you would focus on this particular group of girls?

I found the Ames girls’ story to be very moving. In some ways, their experiences are universal, and so I thought a book about them would resonate with any woman who has ever had a friend. In other ways, their story is completely one-of-a-kind – haunting and touching and exhilarating. Born at the end of the baby boom, their memories are evocative of their times. Born in the middle of the country, they now live everywhere else, but carry Ames with them.

Some of the Ames girls were hesitant at first about sharing themselves so publicly in a book. But in time, they realized that a look at their friendship might offer insights for other women.

They spoke vividly about what it was like to be girls in the sixties and seventies, young women in the eighties, and new mothers in the nineties. They showed me how close friendships can shape every aspect of women’s lives.

Q. What is it like being a man writing about female friendships and living with your wife and daughters at home?

Come live with me, you’ll see! I have a wife and three daughters (ages 19, 17 and 13) and I often can’t figure out their needs or emotions. I’m an outsider, living inside this sometimes secret world. So I’m on a constant quest to understand girls and women. On the friendship front: I’ve seen how friends can buoy the spirits of my daughters, and I’ve also seen the downside, when their friends are cruel or let them down. So I know the power of friendship, and the emptiness girls can feel when friends don’t come through.

I live in suburban Detroit, and I pay attention to my 13-year-old as she interacts with her friends. I’ll carpool them and listen as they chatter away in the backseat. I’m always thinking of the Ames girls, recalling insights they gave me about their own childhoods together. I’ve also learned that friendships can survive their down periods. So I’m able to tell my girls, “You and your friends will get over this. The Ames girls have been muscling through their issues for 40 years!”

My daughters roll their eyes sometimes when I bring up the Ames girls, but I think they are listening now when I try to offer insights. They figure I’ve done a lot of research into friendship. Maybe I’ve learned something.

Q. Do you have any new insight about women from spending so much time with them?

Well, I’ve learned so much about how a close group of friends can keep women healthy and happier. The research, which I delve into in the book, is just astounding. And the Ames girls fit so many of the common patterns.

I learned that female friendships are completely different from male friendships. Men’s friendships are based more on activities – sports, work. I play in a weekly poker game, and pretty much all we talk about are the cards. Period.

Women are connected through their emotions. They talk about their lives.

Because men relate by doing things together, their friendships are considered “side by side.” Women are “face to face.” (In fact, studies show women are better than men at maintaining eye contact.)

Q. You took a break from writing The Girls From Ames to write The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch. How did coming back to the Girls after spending time with Randy change your perspective?

Randy’s death last July really did make a difference in how I felt about so many things when I returned to writing The Girls From Ames. Randy always told me that our relationships with other people are more important than anything else in our lives.

The Ames girls already understood this. And so I saw a lot of connections between “The Girls From Ames” and “The Last Lecture.” Randy talked of putting himself in a bottle that would one day wash up on shore for his three kids, ages 6, 3 and 2. He wanted to offer them all the life lessons and advice he wished he could tell them in the years to come.

The Ames girls are floating through their lives in a bottle together, sharing advice and love all along the way.

Q. How do you want this book to inspire others? What do you hope readers will gain from The Girls from Ames?

I know women will see themselves and their friends in this book. They’ll be reminded of how they’re not alone in the world, and I’m betting that the stories here will be comforting, bringing back their own memories.

I’m sure some women reading the book will think of friends they have lost touch with, and maybe it will encourage them to reconnect.

I also assume some women, who feel they never won the friend lottery, will feel a bit envious of what the Ames girls have. I hope these women will be inspired by what they read, and perhaps they will find meaningful friendships down the road.

Q. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

There was no roadmap when the Ames girls and I began this project. I hadn’t ever heard about a man trying to immerse himself inside the friendship of 11 women. And the girls weren’t used to having a journalist asking intrusive questions.

I have to be honest. There were tense moments and the girls were not always happy with me. Feelings were hurt. Uncomfortable issues were raised. Several of them gave me their diaries or letters, and so I’d learn details about the others that they hadn’t intended to share. There were debates within the group when this happened.

But I was always impressed by the way the girls hashed things out, issue by issue, and then they’d rally into a united front. This book project tested their friendship. But their loyalty to each other really moved me.

I think their friendship emerged as strong as ever. I am very grateful to the girls for everything they did, individually and collectively, to see this through to a finished book. I hope others find their story as inspiring as I did.

Q&A with the Author:

Q. How did the idea for The Girls From Ames come about?

I write a column for The Wall Street Journal about life transitions – those moments when life takes a turn. Back in 2003, I wrote a story on the transitions in women’s friendships, and received hundreds of emails from women eager to tell me about their longtime friends. As I read all their comments, it got me thinking about my own three daughters, and the friends they’d need to carry them through life. Eventually, I decided to find one group of women and immerse myself as a reporter in the “biography” of their friendship. I called a bunch of the women who’d written to me, including Jenny Litchman. She told me about the 10 girls she grew up with in Ames, Iowa.

Q. How did you decide that of all the emails you received, you would focus on this particular group of girls?

I found the Ames girls’ story to be very moving. In some ways, their experiences are universal, and so I thought a book about them would resonate with any woman who has ever had a friend. In other ways, their story is completely one-of-a-kind – haunting and touching and exhilarating. Born at the end of the baby boom, their memories are evocative of their times. Born in the middle of the country, they now live everywhere else, but carry Ames with them.

Some of the Ames girls were hesitant at first about sharing themselves so publicly in a book. But in time, they realized that a look at their friendship might offer insights for other women.

They spoke vividly about what it was like to be girls in the sixties and seventies, young women in the eighties, and new mothers in the nineties. They showed me how close friendships can shape every aspect of women’s lives.

Q. What is it like being a man writing about female friendships and living with your wife and daughters at home?

Come live with me, you’ll see! I have a wife and three daughters (ages 19, 17 and 13) and I often can’t figure out their needs or emotions. I’m an outsider, living inside this sometimes secret world. So I’m on a constant quest to understand girls and women. On the friendship front: I’ve seen how friends can buoy the spirits of my daughters, and I’ve also seen the downside, when their friends are cruel or let them down. So I know the power of friendship, and the emptiness girls can feel when friends don’t come through.

I live in suburban Detroit, and I pay attention to my 13-year-old as she interacts with her friends. I’ll carpool them and listen as they chatter away in the backseat. I’m always thinking of the Ames girls, recalling insights they gave me about their own childhoods together. I’ve also learned that friendships can survive their down periods. So I’m able to tell my girls, “You and your friends will get over this. The Ames girls have been muscling through their issues for 40 years!”

My daughters roll their eyes sometimes when I bring up the Ames girls, but I think they are listening now when I try to offer insights. They figure I’ve done a lot of research into friendship. Maybe I’ve learned something.

Q. Do you have any new insight about women from spending so much time with them?

Well, I’ve learned so much about how a close group of friends can keep women healthy and happier. The research, which I delve into in the book, is just astounding. And the Ames girls fit so many of the common patterns.

I learned that female friendships are completely different from male friendships. Men’s friendships are based more on activities – sports, work. I play in a weekly poker game, and pretty much all we talk about are the cards. Period.

Women are connected through their emotions. They talk about their lives.

Because men relate by doing things together, their friendships are considered “side by side.” Women are “face to face.” (In fact, studies show women are better than men at maintaining eye contact.)

Q. You took a break from writing The Girls From Ames to write The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch. How did coming back to the Girls after spending time with Randy change your perspective?

Randy’s death last July really did make a difference in how I felt about so many things when I returned to writing The Girls From Ames. Randy always told me that our relationships with other people are more important than anything else in our lives.

The Ames girls already understood this. And so I saw a lot of connections between “The Girls From Ames” and “The Last Lecture.” Randy talked of putting himself in a bottle that would one day wash up on shore for his three kids, ages 6, 3 and 2. He wanted to offer them all the life lessons and advice he wished he could tell them in the years to come.

The Ames girls are floating through their lives in a bottle together, sharing advice and love all along the way.

Q. How do you want this book to inspire others? What do you hope readers will gain from The Girls from Ames?

I know women will see themselves and their friends in this book. They’ll be reminded of how they’re not alone in the world, and I’m betting that the stories here will be comforting, bringing back their own memories.

I’m sure some women reading the book will think of friends they have lost touch with, and maybe it will encourage them to reconnect.

I also assume some women, who feel they never won the friend lottery, will feel a bit envious of what the Ames girls have. I hope these women will be inspired by what they read, and perhaps they will find meaningful friendships down the road.

Q. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

There was no roadmap when the Ames girls and I began this project. I hadn’t ever heard about a man trying to immerse himself inside the friendship of 11 women. And the girls weren’t used to having a journalist asking intrusive questions.

I have to be honest. There were tense moments and the girls were not always happy with me. Feelings were hurt. Uncomfortable issues were raised. Several of them gave me their diaries or letters, and so I’d learn details about the others that they hadn’t intended to share. There were debates within the group when this happened.

But I was always impressed by the way the girls hashed things out, issue by issue, and then they’d rally into a united front. This book project tested their friendship. But their loyalty to each other really moved me.

I think their friendship emerged as strong as ever. I am very grateful to the girls for everything they did, individually and collectively, to see this through to a finished book. I hope others find their story as inspiring as I did.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Everyone was disappointed"by awr115 (see profile) 12/17/13

More than half of our book club members did not finish this book. Overall we rated it 1.5 out of 5.0. We found it boring & written without emotion. It does not follow a story line and with so many girls... (read more)

 
  "True story of friendship"by adamsks1 (see profile) 09/08/11

Our group typically reads fiction, but this was a good non-fiction about a group of girls who grew up together and, for the most part, have stayed together.

 
  "Great for Discussion"by hburton (see profile) 03/30/11

Our group pretty much agreed that we liked the book, but didn't love it. I was expecting a beautiful story of women's friendship, from the perspective of a man, with maybe a little insight. But it turned... (read more)

 
  "We didn't get to talk about it but we still liked it"by aprilkyle (see profile) 03/14/11

Our book club enjoyed this book but when we got together to discuss it, one of our friends ended up going to the emergency room so we went there instead. We may not have been able to discuss the book but... (read more)

 
  "The Girls from Ames"by StephiWeffi (see profile) 10/24/10

It was difficult to keep all 11 girls straight & remember details about them all. The book was slow at parts, but very interesting & well written especially considering a man wrote it! :)

 
  "The Girls From Ames"by johnsonlz (see profile) 10/11/10

I found the history of these girls, now women from Ames, a wonderful insight into women's friendships...how they bond, how friendships change and deepen over time, and especially the different qualities... (read more)

 
  "The Girls form Ames"by kenapastore (see profile) 09/04/10

Certainly a chick book. The study of female relationships was very insightful and getting to know the characters was both exciting and daunting. Worth the time if you don't have another must read by... (read more)

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