Five Novels I’ve Read About Friendship

Cover imageThere’s a multitude of books focussing on love of the romantic variety and just as many on love of the familial kind but platonic love not so much. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heart breaking, and for many, friends constitute family. Below are five novels I’ve read which sing the praises of friendship, all with links to full reviews. Perhaps because I’m a woman all my choices revolve around female friendship, or maybe there are fewer books written about the male variety.

Emily Gould’s Friendship seems the obvious place to start. Bev and Amy met when they were both working in publishing. They console each other, messaging constantly through the day keeping each other up to date on the minutiae of their lives and meet frequently. Everything changes when Bev becomes pregnant after a half-hearted one-night stand with a particularly obnoxious colleague. Bev and Amy are immensely appealing and believable characters, struggling to deal with the enormous change which threatens to engulf the bond that has been the only sure thing they’ve had to cling to as they navigated their way through their uncertain twenties. A smart, funny book with something serious to say about growing up and the value of friendship, and it has a lovely ending.

The two eponymous pals in Rachel B. Glaser’s savagely funny yet heart-warmingly poignant Paulina & Fran are a little more mismatched than Bev and Amy. Paulina rampages around the campus of her New England art school in a fury of contempt towards her fellow students while the more conventional Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over aCover image line and Paulina flounces off in high dudgeon. After graduation, when adult life begins and disappointment sets in, the lives of these two remain entangled despite their estrangement, each still obsessed with the other. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory.

Sally Rooney’s award-winning Conversations with Friends takes friendship a few steps further with Frances and Bobbi – once lovers – who are drawn into an older couple’s orbit, meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably.

Katherine and Mahasa, the two friends in Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life, are faced with far greater challenges than Frances and Bobbi. These two very different women meet through their mutual love of music which binds them together in an enduring friendship. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. Echlin paints a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women, able to withstand all that’s thrown at them from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour. A memorable, beautifully written hymn to friendship.

Cover imageThe same can be said of Victoria Redel’s Before Everything in which five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin.

Any books about friendship you’d like to recommend?

37 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read About Friendship

  1. Rebecca Foster

    I’ve read your first three … and would like to read the last two! There’s a copy of the Redel at my public library. Another great novel about female friendship that I would recommend is Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg. On male friendship, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara can’t be beat. As for male-female friendship, Sarah Perry says that’s what The Essex Serpent is all about.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I read the Berg so long ago that I’d forgotten all about it! Thanks for the A Little Life tip, one I’d avoided thanks to all the hype but perhaps I should reconsider.

      Reply
  2. helenmackinven

    Love the cover and the sound of Before Everything which I’ll add to my tbr list. I’ve read Paulina and Fran and also Conversations with Friends. I really wanted to like them both but was left feeling disappointed. I found the pace of each novel too slow for me and didn’t engage with the main characters in the way that I hoped.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      It took me quite some time to get into Conversations with Friends, Helen, then I found it curiously addictive. Absolutely loved the Reddel right from the start, though.

      Reply
  3. Elle

    Tana French’s The Likeness is, surprisingly, a friendship novel (and she’s written another, The Secret Place, which I love almost as much). The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, is another that comes to mind. I’d like to read Before Everything; Paulina and Fran was sent to me in proof when it came out but somehow didn’t work for me at all.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Oh yes, I loved The Interestings. The French is already on my list, I supect because you’ve recommended it. Before Everything is my favourite of the five, closely followed by Under the Visible Life.

      Reply
      1. Elle

        Actually I remember reading about the latter (maybe on your blog earlier?) and being really interested by that too! [stares at TBR in despair]

        Reply
  4. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Well, there’s the famous tetralogy My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrrante, there’s Swing Time by Zadie Smith, which reminded me of Ferrante and then there’s the humorous The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso , who don’t start out as friends, but arrive there in the end!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’m in that tiny minority of readers who doesn’t get on with Ferrante, I’m afraid, but Swing Time’s working it’s way up my pile. Funnily enough the blurb reminded me a little of Under the Visible Life. I like the sound of the Omotoso.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    Lovely topic. These all sound interesting.
    I immediately thought of a classic – Mary McCarthy’s The Group.
    Redel’s book sounds particularly appealing.

    Reply
  6. Jill's Scene

    These are all new to me so thanks for the recommendations. Friendship is one of the themes in the book I’m currently reading, “Two Old Men Dying” by Tom Keneally

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jill. Presumably Keneally’s novel is about male friendship, given the title. I can’t decide whether they’re thinner on the ground or it’s my unconscious bias but I can think of many books that deal with that.

      Reply
      1. Jill's Scene

        I wonder if they manage it slightly differently? In this case the friendships described very much shape the narrator’s life, but they’re each presented along the way to some other, external goal. At least that’s how it seems at the moment, I’m only half way through this one.

        Reply
        1. Susan Osborne Post author

          That does sound different from the five books I’ve included here where it’s much more about the women’s relationship to each other. Interesting to compare the two approaches. I’ll add it to my list. Thanks!

          Reply
  7. Cathy746books

    I’ve just read Social Creature – think Talented Mr Ripley but set in contemporary New York. It’s a twisted look at friendship and the dangers of living life online. I really enjoyed it.

    Reply
  8. janetemson

    I’ve read Before Everything, though I’m not famiiar with the others. Of course now any books I knew about female friendship have totally vanished from my head!

    Reply
  9. Liz

    What a great post, Susan! I love the sound of Before Everything and spotted mention of The Interestings in the comments, which I have on order from the library. One of my favourite friendship books is The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. It is ages since I last read it, so thanks for the reminder! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Naomi

      I loved The Persian Pickle Club! I read it years ago, and this is the first time I’ve seen anyone else mention it. I don’t even remember what made me read it – the title, probably.

      Reply
      1. Liz

        Oh Naomi, how glad I am to know that there is at least one other person out there who loves TPPC – thank you! I’ll definitely be re-reading it now in celebration!!

        Reply
          1. Liz

            No never, funnily enough. And like you, I can’t even remember how I came to have TPPC in the first place. I see from Amazon that she wrote quite a few other books so it might be fun to try some of her other titles. Definitely a re-read of TPPC first though!

  10. Naomi

    I love this post, Susan! It has me thinking about friendship in books, but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with anything. I’m glad to see Under the Visible Life included here, but I haven’t read the other ones (yet!). They all sound good. A lot of books have friendships in them, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot that are *about* friendship.

    Reply
  11. Liz

    No never, funnily enough. And like you, I can’t even remember how I came to have TPPC in the first place. I see from Amazon that she wrote quite a few other books so it might be fun to try some of her other titles. Definitely a re-read of TPPC first though!

    Reply
  12. buriedinprint

    I always think of girlhood reading on this subject, particularly the Judy Blume books that I loved as a a girl. And, more recently, I’ve reread Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which has a remarkable friendship between two very-plucky girls (Bonnie and Sylvia) but the girls are also friends with Simon, who moves to the centre of the story in the next book (which I’m reading for the first time now). As for adult reading, I found the friendship in Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone (Trans. Shuggar) quite complicated and interesting. Wonderful topic!

    Reply

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