BFFs or Mortal Enemies? Ten Books That Explore Female Friendship (Part I)
For me, the stakes in female friendship—and I can only speak as a straight woman here—are just as high or higher than in romantic ones. We trust our women friends with so much intimate knowledge; why is that? Our hairdressers know for sure…isn’t that the truth…but why do we so often share intimacies with strangers if they are of our gender? Why do I still share things with my women friends that I don’t with my husband of twenty-two years? Why is it—for me—that romantic relationships can end in flames, and yes, some very, very bad days—but ultimately the pain doesn’t linger like the loss of a dear female friend?
Below are ten novels, out of hundreds, that explore the agony and ecstasy of female friendship: a force equally likely to raise you up as tear you down.
- The Girls
By Emma Cline
The Girls focuses on the female members of a “Manson-like” cult, a feral crew of brainwashed teens, and how they are seen through the eyes of Evie. She’s a lonely, vulnerable teenage girl who is trying to figure out who she is and in the process, does just about anything for acceptance and recognition. Cline captures beautifully the anguish of the time of life when you would do anything for inclusion in a group, when you can’t imagine a higher achievement than that. I wanted to sit down with the protagonist and tell her this, too, will change, just hug it out until she believed me.
- Cat’s Eye
By Margaret Atwood
A fiercely sad and intelligent book, Cat’s Eye is the story of avant-garde painter Elaine Risley who reflects on her tumultuous childhood during her return to her hometown of Toronto for her retrospective art exhibit. Through the course of the book, Elaine is slowly facing and remembering the harrowing cruelty she experienced at the hands of her “friend” Cordelia, a journey made more poignant by the fact that all Elaine ever really wanted was a best girlfriend. Subplots such as her relationship to her brother, her former and current husbands, and her art flesh out this exquisitely written book.
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By Muriel Spark
In this heartbreaking, hilarious, and ultimately moving masterpiece, six girls known as “The Brodie set” grow and change under the tutelage of spinster and teacher Miss Jean Brodie in Edinburgh in the 1930s. The themes of betrayal, fitting in, sex and adultery, the power of art, and the vicissitudes of friendship are woven through this story. Miss Brodie begins as an object of worship and fascination by her students, whom she calls the crème de la crème, but as the years pass, the betrayals build, and the cloaks and veils fall away, revealing the humanity in their object of worship and in themselves as they began to age as well.
- Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
By Lorrie Moore
An achingly sad but brilliant novel that merges musings on middle-aged emptiness with a coming-of-age tale. Berie, a photography curator at her local historical society, visits Paris with her medical-researcher husband. Their marriage is emotionally vacuous: as Berie notes on the second page of the book, “The affectionate farce I make of him ignores the ways I feel his lack of love for me.” This grown-up ennui leads Berie to reminisce about the exceptionally close and lively friendship she had as a teenager with Sils, the local beauty in the small town on the Canadian border where they live. Much of the book tells the story of the summer when Sils and Berie worked at a local amusement park, Sils entertaining park guests as Cinderella and Berie selling tickets, and of the results of Berie’s stealing money to help Sils when she becomes pregnant.
- Two Girls Fat and Thin
By Mary Gaitskill
Two women, completely different in background, personality, and social class, are brought together by a shared fascination with the philosophical movement founded by the late Ayn Rand. Justine is a chic journalist while Dorothy is an obese, nocturnal word processor who answers Justine’s advertisement in the Manhattan Thing to be interviewed. As the two women come to know each other, their dismal life experiences gradually emerge; both were molested as children. Where both women have unresolved conflicts from their past, their acquaintanceship, while mistrustful at first, is their first steppingstone to personal redemption.