Tag Archives: Friendship in fiction

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?

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman: The Big Chill reprised

Cover imageThe Gunners is built around a structure that rarely fails to attract me: a group of people, once friends as children or young adults, are brought together by an event which affects them all. Weddings and funerals are a favourite trigger for this kind of reunion and in the case of Rebecca Kauffman’s novel it’s a funeral just as the friends enter their thirties. The five remaining members of the group that dubbed themselves the Gunners are brought together by the suicide of the sixth who none of them had heard from since she left the group aged sixteen with no explanation.

Mikey is the only one of the five who stayed close to their Ohio childhood home town. Jimmy has long since moved into finance making enough money to have a palatial summer home nearby to which he’s invited the other four for a lavishly catered meal. Sam has flown in from Georgia and appears to have taken to religion; Alice arrives with her girlfriend, as loud and tactless as ever while Lynn and her partner make up the party, both musicians now running an AA group. These five who have been friends since they were six years old are only loosely in touch, having drifted apart after Sally’s unexplained departure. There’s a great deal of catching up to do but overarching it all are two questions: why did Sally not only desert the Gunners but determinedly avoid contact with Mikey, once her best friend, and why did she take her own life.

If you’re of a certain age you may well have seen The Big Chill which has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen, complete with the Marvin Gaye’s sublime ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ playing over it. Shortly after starting The Gunners, I was struck by what a good film it would make, then I realised it had already been made. This is not to criticise the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kauffman’s charactericisation is strong, the flitting back and forth between childhood memories to adult reunions deftly developing each of them. Secrets are revealed, and if the two big questions are not entirely answered it doesn’t detract from the novel merely reflecting what might well happen in real life. This is a satisfying, often poignant read. There’s not a huge amount of bite to it but once I’d settled into The Big Chill vibe I was more than happy to enjoy the ride.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: A smart beach read

Cover imageComing towards the end of what felt like months of relentless electioneering, I was in need of a well turned out piece of escapism. Something I could lose myself in and forget about the world for a while. Invincible Summer looked just the ticket. It takes four friends who meet as undergraduates in 1997 and follows them up until the year they turn forty – a structure I find irresistible as you may have already noticed if you’re a regular visitor to this blog.

Adams’ novel opens with Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien lazing around on a sunny afternoon, sharing a bottle of wine. Benedict has a massive if quiet crush on Eva who lusts after Lucien who seems to be working his way through the female population of Bristol University much to his sister Sylvie’s disgust. Each of them follows a very different route after graduation. Benedict becomes a researcher in particle physics. Eva confounds her socialist father by working as a trader in the City. Sylvie takes a multitude of scuzzy jobs, working on her art in her few spare hours. Lucien continues his party-boy antics as a club promoter. Over the twenty years the novel spans, the bright shiny futures they’d assumed were before them become a little tarnished. Marriages are made and unmade, affairs are had, children are born, ambitions are achieved then unraveled but setbacks sometimes turn out to be the best thing that could have happened. The book ends, as it began, with the four friends together, more knocked about than they once were but content and happy in each other’s company.

There’s a touch of David Nicholls about Invincible Summer but with a little more of an edge and a few pleasingly sharp flashes of humour. Adams’ characters are nicely rounded – neither saints nor sinners, although Lucien might fall into the latter bracket for some. Adams knows how to spin a story, drawing her readers in, deftly handling the dynamics of friendship and steering neatly clear of any saccharine-sweet ending. It’s not a book that will set the literary world on fire but I enjoyed it very much: an involving, entertaining, thoroughly believable piece of much-needed escapism. One to pack in your bag if you’re off to the beach this year or in need of sticking your head in the metaphorical sand.

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin: Friends forever

Under the Visible LifeKim over at Reading Matters has decided to devote her reading life to OzLit this year and I’m looking forward to discovering some Aussie writers hitherto unknown to me. We in the UK tend only to read the headline acts such as Peter Carey and Tim Winton, I suspect. The same could be said of Canadian fiction but a visit to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink will introduce you to a whole bunch of vibrant writers, although if you’re like me and have long sworn off Amazon you may have trouble in tracking some of their books down. Not so with Kim Echlin I’m pleased to say. Under the Visible Life is the first novel of hers I’ve read but if this engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference is anything to go by I’ll be hoovering up her entire backlist shortly.

In 1950 Mahsa’s Afghan mother ran away with her American father, finding sanctuary with an uncle in Karachi. Mahsa’s is an idyllic childhood, music running through it like lifeblood as her parents dance and sing caught up in their love for each other and their daughter. When the uncle dies Mahsa’s parents are left without protection from the half-brothers intent on avenging their sister’s honour and the inevitable happens. Mahsa becomes the ward of a much stricter uncle, one who has no truck with the idea of independent women. When she wins a scholarship to study in Montreal, she reluctantly leaves her young lover for the freedom she knows she’ll never have in Karachi. There she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine with whom she shares a musical affinity. Katherine is the child of a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour. Deserted by her Chinese father, life is tough for Katherine and her mother but, like Mahsa, music offers an escape. She carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed which endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain.

Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. Race and identity inevitably flow through a novel in which each narrator is of mixed race but perhaps the strongest theme is the friendship to which they form a backdrop. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. It’s 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. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing: marriage could be ‘playing solos at the same time and ending up together’ observes Katherine while ‘teenage boys are warriors without armour’ and her mother’s last days ’haunt me like a dark, unfading bruise’. So many striking phrases to quote but my favourite is Katherine’s pronouncement to Mahsa, still locked into her forced marriage: ‘The most radical thing a woman can do is live.’ Amen to that!

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser: Friendship, warts and all

Paulina & FranFemale friendship is a frequent theme in fiction, or at least what’s often dubbed as ‘women’s fiction’ – a label best avoided in my view. It can be more than a little idealised but that’s not an accusation that could be levelled at Rachel B. Glaser, for sure. Her first novel, Paulina & Fran, is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from their meeting as students back in 2000 along the thorny path their friendship is propelled.

Paulina has already been chucked out of Smith before landing up at the New England art school where she meets Fran. She rampages around the campus in a fury of contempt towards her fellow aspiring artists, sleeping with all and sundry whenever an opportunity presents itself. It’s never quite clear what Paulina’s particular artistic bent is but she’s more than a little forthright about her fellow students’ work. Despite that she’s managed to acquire two friends – Sadie and Allison – who trail along in her wake. Paulina signs up for a study trip to Norway mainly to launch another onslaught of sexual advances at the guy she’s had in her sights all semester. On the bus to the airport she spots Fran, last seen dancing in front of a shattered mirror at a party. Surprisingly, these two hit it off, curling their lips at the world, becoming bosom buddies overnight and bonding over their hair problems. Back in New England, Paulina abandons Sadie and Allison for Fran. All goes swimmingly until Fran steps over a 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 novel is both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran – the more conventional of the two – is similarly well drawn, incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while settling for the kind of job that would make her erstwhile friend spit bile at its merest mention. Glaser has a sharp eye for the striking phrase – ‘every nightgown came with a few bad dreams’; ’anxiety fidgeted through her body’; ’Why couldn’t people stay where she put them?’; a ‘silk shirt that wrinkled with her every thought’ – are just a few to whet your appetite. It’s a very smart piece of fiction. Glaser’s depiction of this tortured friendship resists any saccharine sentimentalisation, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.