25 Fascinating Female Friendships in Literature

By
Share:

In my view, Claire Messud was on point when she said (in a now-famous response to an interviewer balking at an “unlikeable” character) that “if you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” But that only applies to friends for yourself. That is, because, at least for me, reading about friendship — fraught and bad and dangerous as it may be — is one of my deepest pleasures, particularly when the friendships are between women. But while Ferrante Fever is still in full swing, it’s amazing to me how rare it still is to find complex female friendships in literature for adults (YA has it a little more locked), and even the whiff of a good one can send me straight to the bookstore. In case you’ve been having the same feeling, here are 25 books that investigate female friendship in one form or another. More please.

Innocents and Others, Dana Spiotta

Spiotta’s latest novel is about art, artifice, selfhood, exposure. It also features one of the most compelling, but more importantly true-feeling female friendship in recent memory, that of two girls who grow up to be filmmakers, one the avant-garde Meadow Mori and the other the mega-commercial Carrie Wexler. Spiotta’s rendering of these women is, for me, the most interesting part of the book. From an early scene: “Meadow was building an idea about something, and she liked to think through talking. Once Carrie understood that, she didn’t feel condescended to. She instead felt a pleasing intimacy with Meadow and her great brain. Carrie knew how to be friends with Meadow.” The women fall apart, fall together, ignore each other, hurt each other, love each other — that’s how it goes.

The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

Well, of course — the series that has everyone talking about female friendship in literature again. If you’re reading this list and you haven’t picked up at least one of these, I’d be surprised.

The Door, Magda Szabó

This novel unpacks the turbulent, strange, but loving relationship between a Hungarian writer (named Magda) and her housekeeper, Emerence, the latter being one of the most remarkable characters I have ever come across in fiction. Subtle, intellectual, and if not exactly unflinching then certainly told with bone-scraping honesty, this is a masterpiece.

The Secret Place, Tana French

Tana French’s fifth Dublin Murder Squad book takes place in a girls’ boarding school where a 16-year-old boy was murdered. The titular “secret place” is a board where the students can anonymously post love letters, secrets, and of course, clues (my high school had one of these too, but it was on the internet, and it was rapidly shut down). But which tightly knit group of teenage girls is really responsible? Hint: it’s not who you think.

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

If nothing else, Clowes wins the field in character-naming: Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer are the best friends in his classic graphic novel. But there’s quite a bit else: these girls are among the best teenage characters you’ll ever meet, weird, appraising and angst-filled. More importantly, Clowes captures their friendship at a crucial moment — post-high school, pre-the rest of their lives — and tells their story with frank intensity.

Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones

This friendship makes the list for its shivering strangeness: Dana and Chaurisse have the same father. Dana knows it (her family is the illegitimate one, her mother the longtime mistress), Chaurisse does not. Eventually, due in part to Dana’s curiosity, the two girls become friends. Lies, lies, lies — you’ll be turning the pages, all right.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is, ultimately, a marriage plot, which in some ways makes it run counter to our purposes here — Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester is paramount. But the book also contains a few crucial female friendships, the most memorable being that of Jane and Helen Burns, her devout role model at Lowood. This is so often the way girls become friends, after all — by awe and by necessity, which turn into real love.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

There’s a romantic bent to the old friendship that haunts the mind of Mrs. Dalloway, to be sure — but that doesn’t make it any less relevant to our purposes. To be sure, the strongest friendships, even between straight women, often have a little whiff of the erotic about them.

Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman

Wasserman’s first book for adults takes a familiar formula — good girl meets bad girl — and infuses it with violence, obsession, drugs and Kurt Cobain. If you never had a friendship like this one, count your blessings.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Good stories need to be told, but they also need to be heard. This novel is framed as a conversation, as Janie recounts the events of her complicated life to her best friend Pheoby. It’s only in essentially overhearing the tale that we as the readers can come to understand anything. An argument for listening in on any number of interesting pairs of women.

How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti

Heti’s weirdo novel/memoir/farce/drama doesn’t really answer its titular question. What it does do is present one way to be, and one way to be with your best friend: sometimes desperate, sometimes in love, sometimes cool, sometimes cruel. Love it or hate it, it strikes at something that feels real, raw and singular — like any good friendship.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore

In this novel, a dissatisfied middle-aged woman looks back on her fifteenth summer, and the best friend she ran amuck with, working at an amusement park called Storyland, smoking cigarettes, and eventually, getting into real trouble. Like all of Moore’s work, this friendship, though not particularly uncommon as friendships go, is rendered in acerbic, funny, witty brilliance.

The People of Forever are Not Afraid, Shani Boianjiu

This novel follows three teenage girls as they graduate from high school in their small town and are drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces. Boianjiu, an IDF veteran herself, brilliantly portrays the surreality and banality of violence (or expected violence) and the ways these women push each other away or cling together as their worlds change.

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Another middle-aged female protagonist remembering her childhood best friend — except in this case, that best friend was also her torturer. The disturbing cruelty of girls knows no bounds.

The Girls from Corona Del Mar, Rufi Thorpe

This is a captivating portrait of a friendship between two very different girls over two very difficult decades, and a reminder that people don’t always turn out the way you thought they would — and neither do you.

Talk, Linda Rosenkrantz

A novel like this is what results when you bring a tape recorder to the beach with your super smart friends. But wait, don’t go away — I mean that in a good way. This compulsively readable, eternally relevant (it came out in 1968, but still sounds contemporary), novel-in-conversation is fascinating because of the interplay of the friendships: Marsha and Emily, whom Stephen Koch describes in the introduction to the NYRB edition as “two beautiful, much desired, but bewildered women who are each other’s alter egos,” and their gay best friend Vincent, with whom Marsha is sort of in love.

Ugly Girls, Lindsay Hunter

For anyone who idealizes teenage girls and their friendships, Lindsay Hunter has news for you. Both things are, or can be, ugly—in almost every way imaginable. This book is a riot of ugliness, of badness, of grossness, but in a way that can’t help but be endlessly fascinating. Moreover, it will leave you clinging to your very nice and normal best friend in abject relief.

Sula, Toni Morrison

No ideal friendship, this, but a perfectly human one. Nel and Sula are best friends as children, despite being from the “opposite sides of the tracks.” When they cause a tragic accident, they begin to grow apart, Nel living up to her good-girl reputation and Sula becoming the community’s symbol for badness. It’s all confirmed when, after a long time away, Sula returns to betray her friend for a final time.

Friendship, Emily Gould

This novel is kind of like the coming-of-age story (since 30 is when you come of age now in America) of three characters: Amy, Bev, and Amy-and-Bev, the longtime friendship that is tested when Bev winds up unexpectedly pregnant.

Dare Me, Megan Abbott

Let’s just put it this way: cheerleaders are terrifying. Especially in packs.

Dear Thief, Samantha Harvey

This is novel-as-message in its purest form: the book is presented as a letter from an old woman to an old and magnetic friend, who betrayed her, who disappeared. Language is king here: Dear Thief is not only book as message, it is book as spell.

The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

For every woman upstairs, there is a woman downstairs — in this case, the beautiful Sirena, whom Nora befriends and obsesses over (also obsessing over her husband and child), trying to escape her own world into a world she imagines as ideal. It doesn’t work out, quite.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

Welcome to the May of Teck Club, a boarding house “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” The women within are funny and silly and savage and damaged, and the book is a gem.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

You’d think that Mariam and Laila would hate each other — so different, and in such circumstances — and they do begin as enemies. But their growing friendship, and the sacrifices they make, quickly becomes the raw heart of this novel.

The Group, Mary McCarthy

Well sure: the classic novel of female friendship and growing up in the big city, still gracing bookshelves everywhere after all these years.