A New Novel That Celebrates BFFs

Novelist Leslie Cohen ’06 has been described as “a young Nora Ephron,” an impressive analogy that might imply publishing doors swung open easily for her. But Cohen’s career path was a lot more unusual, and much less assured. She was a mountain-town music writer before deciding to attend law school, then wrote a handful of novels that went nowhere before she was finally published in 2018. Her debut, This Love Story Will Self-Destruct, is a classic New York romantic comedy; in the first chapter, Eve, an arty dreamer, and Ben, an orderly engineer, meet cute as students at Columbia.

Now more confidently through the door, Cohen decided to change things up for her sophomore novel. Her latest, My Ride or Die (William Morrow, $16.99), puts female friendship at the forefront, telling the relationship story of two millennial New Yorkers: Amanda, a successful but anxious lawyer, and Sophie, gorgeous and more free-spirited, but struggling to find her way as an artist.

After two romantic disasters — Sophie calls off her wedding minutes before walking down the aisle, and Amanda learns that her boss/boyfriend is most definitely not divorced — the friends decide to flip the script and forge a new partnership ideal: They will commit their lives to each other and relegate men to the periphery. The pair buy a fixer-upper on Convent Avenue and start a blissful platonic life together, and while you just know one of them is about to fall in love, the genuine humor and relatability of their friendship and Cohen’s knack for spot-on cultural detail keep the pages turning.

“I felt more secure taking risks with this book,” she says. “I could be a little zanier and use a voice I felt more confident about. I could step into my own shoes more.”

Leslie Cohen ’06

Cohen says she sees some of herself in both her main characters (I was not the first to ask, tritely: “Are you an Amanda or a Sophie?”), but she clearly shares some qualities with Sophie, who yearns to be a painter but is desperate for affirmation and professional guidance. A New York native, Cohen was an English major and in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program; she wanted to be a writer, but she didn’t know if she was good enough. One professor in particular helped her find her conviction — Leslie Woodard GS’94, then head of the program. Woodard, who died in 2013, told her she had a unique voice. “She had so many students, so [her validation] was a really big deal,” Cohen says. “I owe a lot to her. Especially as a 21-year-old, you really need someone to tell you they see potential in you.”

Intimidated by the competition for writing jobs in New York and also seeking adventure, Cohen spent a year in Aspen, Colo., writing a music column for the local newspaper and as an assistant editor at one of the village’s luxe glossies. “It was a year where I grew a lot, personally and professionally,” Cohen says.

But a year in a small town was enough. When she returned to New York, the competition for writing jobs was still fierce, and Cohen quickly felt lost. She decided to change direction and went to law school, which she now admits was a mistake. But sometimes clarifying what you absolutely do not want to do helps to shine a light on your true passion — soon after taking the bar, Cohen was applying for jobs at literary agencies.

She eventually landed at Writers House. “I could have kissed the ground every day, I was so happy I wasn’t working at a law firm,” she says. “It gave me a huge appreciation for the publishing world.” (Amusingly, her first book included five characters who are associates at a law firm.)

Cohen is now at work on her third novel (albeit slowly — she and her husband, David Verbitsky SEAS’06, have a 3-year-old daughter and she is seven months pregnant with their second child). “It takes place in the south of France, mostly for selfish reasons because I’d like to go there,” she laughs. “But also, who doesn’t want to read a novel set in the south of France?”

By the end of My Ride or Die, both young women are creating meaningful lives in their own ways; the author is also happy that despite her circuitous journey, she is now where she always wanted to be. “I was meant to write fiction,” Cohen says. “I’m lucky I’ve been able to make that work, and I feel grateful all the time.”