Women and Their Friends
Women in recent novels tend to do one of two things: either they disappear, or they have intense and complicated relationships with other women. Sometimes, they do both. I’m sure there are some cool theories about the ballooning fascination with women who go missing (why that, why now), but I’m more interested in the perfectly timed, ranging, serious literary engagement with friendships among women. It’s perfectly timed in a few ways, some personal, some related to the cultural moment. For one thing, some of my own friendships got complicated in new ways as I moved from my twenties into my thirties. Being a friend and having a friend began to take more thought. I had to make decisions.
At around the same time, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way people talked about women friendships. Concepts like frenemy (which plays into the tired notion that women are particularly cruel to other women) and shine theory (the troubling idea that women should befriend, and not compete with, powerful women to benefit their own careers) flattened and lightened something with so much crucial dimension and weight.
We needed a better vocabulary for women friendship. Good literature, in its refusal to classify and commodify, is the most robust means I know for developing a new lexicon to talk about an old and elastic thing. I have a list. Of the books I’ve read on the subject of late, I liked some better than others, but the list isn’t a ranking. Instead, I’ve made a vocabulary list, a set of words that constellate among these novels. Here are the novels under discussion, in order of publication, though I didn’t read them in precisely this order (links to Amazon; don’t @ me):
- Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (Europa Editions, 2011-2014)
- The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Vintage, 2013)
- The Door by Magda Szabó (NYRB Classics, 2015)
- Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)
- The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016)
- Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Harper Collins, 2016)
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2016)
- Marlena by Julie Buntin (Holt, 2017)
And the vocabulary, also a list of eight:
The narrator, in all of these novels, is the less extraordinary of the friends. At least, she is less extreme. She observes her friend, but she’s always missing something crucial. Like, she’s so captivated by the best friend’s specialness or otherness that she can’t quite see her as a full person. To be fair, there’s a lot of bravado and pride to peel away. The best friend seems, on the surface, to be more selfish and even cruel, but really the narrator is often thoughtless and ungenerous, vacillating too easily between gratitude and hurt feelings to show much understanding or to help the best friend in the ways that count. The exemplars of this dynamic are Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Door, Swing Time, and Marlena, but all the novels (except maybe Eileen) evoke this phenomenon to some degree, in that the best friends are the more obviously flawed and broken, but the narrators have limitations of their own, and these are the more damning.
All but three of these novels start when the narrator and her best friend are children or teenagers. Some are epics. In Ferrante’s novels, Another Brooklyn, and Swing Time, we see the whole life of the friendship from the very early age of dolls, dress-up, and grade school. The neighborhood is more than a backdrop in these books. It’s a kind of wobbly container, beyond whose confines the friendship pivots dangerously. Even before that happens, though, these girlhood friendships face plenty of perils. Another Brooklyn depicts a more idyllic girlhood phase of friendship than the others, maybe because it’s a group of four friends. The pressures there come from the outside. In the other two, the best friend (Lila, Tracey) is very difficult. She is the dominant one, with more potential and radiance, and also the more needy and fragile.
In The Girls and Marlena, the friendship begins and ends in the heat of adolescence. The best friend is shockingly gorgeous (also, eventually, true of Lila) with absent parents. She’s bad news. She’s older. She’s magnetic. There’s that way in which older teenagers who have done more drugs and had more sex appear wiser somehow. They take half-measures to protect their younger friend from the very vices that they introduce to her (such as involvement with a murderous cult leader), while also ridiculing her for being naïve and not quite getting it. Their young friends are just happy to be anointed. These friendships are strictly finite. A phase. A blip.
This is not about the physical environment. It’s about the secret if permeable world that young girl friends make together, apart from parents and anything or anyone ordinary. They make each other special. They have rites and a language of their own. The aesthetic of the writing brings the reader into this world. The Girls, Another Brooklyn, and Marlena, especially, unfold in a sweet, sweaty lyric. They capture the slippery, bodily romance of girlhood friendship. Even though, in The Girls and Marlena, the characters are often drunk or high, the substances themselves are incidental. The sober girls of Another Brooklyn are no less drugged by the thrill of having other girls to call their very own, who orbit the same star.
The worlds of the Neapolitan quartet and Swing Time are not as loose and dreamy. The worlds are more like systems with an internal set of rules, airless and sticky. The friendships, in these two novels, often seem more oppressive and terrestrial, less exuberant. It’s as if Lenu and Lila, and the narrator and Tracey, did not fully choose to be friends but some force of gravity brought them irrevocably together. The bond is stronger for it.
Eileen is an outlier in most ways, but it’s the best example of a narrator who makes herself who she is on the crucible of an outlandish friendship. It begins with misdirection: Eileen announces her story as one of disappearance, in that she escaped her miserable life with her horrible father and doesn’t reveal her new name, but it’s really the story of appearance, of becoming. Her life, up until she meets Rebecca, is indistinct and gray and sexless. Rebecca, herself, is the worst. She’s a cartoonish femme fatale, and she’s hardly ever onscreen. She’s a plot device, but an instructive one: Eileen, like many if not all of the other novels listed here, evokes the kind of overpowering fascination with another woman that can completely derail someone’s life, for better or worse.
While the best friends in other novels are, compared to the evil blow-up doll Rebecca, much more fully formed, sympathetic (or at least pitiable), and compelling to the reader, they are no less a means by which the narrator appears and becomes. It’s no wonder so many of these best friends feel used and misunderstood. Without Lila, Lenu probably wouldn’t be a writer. Without Marlena, Cat may never have reckoned with herself, her anger, and her boredom. Even revenge for the best friend’s awful betrayal, as in the case of Nora in The Woman Upstairs, becomes a way to escape a bitter, regretful life. The best friends bring not just electricity and color, but also a deeper consciousness of oneself and one’s place in the world. What starts as an escape from the mundane becomes a greater emergence.
The friendships in the novels that begin in early childhood continue, falteringly, into adulthood. The way these friendships morph, persist, and bedevil the narrators, especially in the Neapolitan trilogy and in Swing Time, becomes the main story, even though themes and motifs from childhood refract throughout. Ferrante surveys the terrain of an aging friendship especially, while Smith puts a lot more distance between the narrator and Tracey, with occasional, explosive intersections that underline how over the friendship really is. In Another Brooklyn, a teenage betrayal hastens the divergence that comes with age, but Ferrante raises the question of what happens when you grow up to be very different, but you never really grow apart. When you are still close, even from a few cities away, despite keen betrayal and stubbornness and misunderstanding.
The teenage friendships in The Girls and Marlena may end, but they aren’t really over for the adult narrators. The narratives bounce from past to present, from the charge of teenage wonder to the ostensible security of adulthood. They are haunted, shrouded, unable to live fully. This is especially true for Cat without Marlena. She, alone, survives, and she feels awful about it. Alcoholism seems less like a way to numb her memory and conscience than a way to punish herself and maybe even wreck her life.
Three novels begin in the narrators’ adulthood: Eileen is 24 when she meets Rebecca, Nora is maybe late 30s when she meets Sirena, and, in The Door, Magda employs Emerence as her housekeeper as she approaches middle age. The three adult quasi-friendships are the most obsessive and at times hazardous, even if the others are equally consuming. These are not best-friendships. Eileen and Nora both get an erotic/auto-erotic charge from the other women, which, fine. It moves the story along.
The Door is singular in the way it shows how a fully adult, accomplished, realized woman can become so endlessly curious about another woman who has chosen a different, perplexing, rigid set of standards by which to live. So many mysterious women in literature, at least as they are represented in the male gaze, cultivate their mystery as a kind of power move. Not Emerence. Emerence just is. She is plain and inscrutable, and Magda—both drawn to her and repulsed—wants to figure her out. This is partly practical, in that breaking one of the housekeeper’s unspoken rules might drive her away. But it’s more about having a messy and regular life and envying the purity and severity of someone else’s.
There are mothers in several of the books, but in Swing Time and Marlena, the mothers become the real story. Both mothers undergo transformations in their own lives and in their daughters’ eyes. The narrator’s mother in Swing Time is formidable and ambitious, while Cat’s mother in Marlena is just scraping by. Both are beautiful, and both torment their daughters, just as the best friends do. And their daughters torment them. I coach teenage girls, and I hear how those teenagers speak to their mothers, and I remember how I spoke to mine. It’s the great shame of my life that I’m not better to my mother. Because, like me, the narrators owe their mothers, not just their lives, but their survival into adulthood. (The mothers of the best friends, meanwhile, fail them. The narrators’ fathers fail them, too.) Both of these novels unearth the impossibilities of daughterhood: the anger at a mother’s limits and her gifts and her insistent presence, the reluctance to admit that she made us and formed us, the way we try to contain her and keep her from changing. The best friend is, in a sense, a doomed attempt to escape the mother. As if we belong elsewhere, to someone else. We deny our kinship, until we can’t.
All the narrators and best friends in these books would probably identify as heterosexual. They have boyfriends or husbands or at least they have sex with men. In The Door, Magda has to navigate the fact that her husband isn’t nearly as enamored with Emerence as she is. In almost all the other novels, men are the site of some kind of betrayal, or sense of betrayal, or attempt at betrayal. I guess that’s understandable, even though I haven’t found men to be involved, typically, in the problems or complications of my own women friendships. Men, in these novels, only seem to make trouble between the friends, even when there’s no cheating. I don’t find much truth in that, either. It is an awful thing to witness a friend be diminished by a man, but the idea of a boyfriend as a rival to the best friend’s time and attention is mostly a conceit of literature and film. It’s certainly one of the joys of adulthood to watch a friend find the right kind of love, but that’s never represented in the literature, these novels no exception. The disconnect probably accounts for why friends’ weddings are mostly great in real life but so disastrous in movies.
But even though these authors rely on men for the ostensible conflict, that’s never the real wedge that drives friends in these novels apart.
Instead, it’s money. Education, stability, careers, prospects, and sometimes better marriages tend to divide the narrator from her less fortunate friend. The differences are less obvious in childhood. In many of the novels, this is a question of the finer gradients of class. Maybe it’s having two parents at home, like the narrator in Swing Time has, or enough money for books, like Lenu in the Neapolitan quartet. Over time, in art as in life, the gap widens. The best friends are stuck. They tend to have more success with men, almost as a way to compensate, but it’s the money stuff, the mobility especially, that really matters. One friend, typically the narrator, has a future, has a shot and takes it. There’s envy, of course, but mostly the divergence causes a more profound misunderstanding. The narrator doesn’t get it. Marlena tells Cat, Lila tells Lenu that they don’t know what it’s like, but they can’t hear it.
Money is a shorthand here. Sometimes, it’s just making different choices as adulthood approaches. Sleeping with someone’s boyfriend or husband pales compared to the betrayal of choosing a path out of the neighborhood, out of childhood and into adulthood, out of the world the friends made together.
I love this Amina Cain essay on friendship at Two Serious Ladies.
Some older novels about women friendships that I particularly like, (even if, in one case, I conflate it entirely with the movie Beaches):
- Sula by Toni Morrison
- Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
- Emma by Jane Austen
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
- How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
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