Seven Books about Intense Female Friendships

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Fraught, complex, and often just as anguished as romantic relationships, friendship serves a fundamental need, but it’s not always for the faint-hearted. We can be swept up in the charisma of a friend, placing them on a pedestal and failing or even refusing to acknowledge their flaws. Sometimes we’re addicted to the drama a friendship generates – after all, some people are just more exciting to be around. It might be that we see a friend as a passport to another, better life. They’re the kind of person who’s always introducing us to new people and new experiences. We might even see a friend as a sort of status symbol. If she’s friends with me, that’s got to mean something. Suffice it to say, there’s often more to friendship than meets the eye.

I’ve noticed that many female friendship novels entwine a charismatic friend with what I call an ‘observer-admirer’. The observer-admirer is the protagonist, more often than not, and the story is usually told in the first person, allowing us to reside more fully within the friendship and develop a greater sense of the charismatic counterpart. A bad influence always makes for a good read, and the charismatic friend is often difficult and/or troubled, making for a more satisfying character study.

My novel You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here explores the shifting dynamic between two intensely ambitious young women, Katie and Evelyn, who share grandiose dreams of becoming filmmakers and artists in London, New York and Los Angeles. They want to lead exhilarating lives, and be admired and esteemed for their creativity. Evelyn’s unwavering self-belief is compelling to Katie, and her company almost addictive. “How is it that Evelyn makes me feel superior and insignificant all at the same time?” she wonders, certain that Evelyn is the one most likely to achieve success, and that the dream they share will only come to fruition if she and Evelyn are together. Katie will be forced to undergo a process of individuation from her Queen Bee companion, and to fight for the creative life she’s always envisioned for herself.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo struggle to improve their circumstances in patriarchal 1950’s Naples, facing an uphill battle to be recognised for their precocity. The girls swing between feelings of admiration and jealousy, trapped in an unending cycle of love and resentment. As Ferrante herself puts it, “Friendship is a crucible of positive and negative feelings that are in a permanent state of ebullition.”

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

When we make friends as children, it’s almost as though we don’t choose the friendship; it comes about like magic, and the bond is forged almost instantaneously. In Cat’s Eye, Elaine is haunted by a painful formative friendship she had with a girl called Cordelia. The novel strings together a series of distressing recollections which will resonate with women who’ve experienced cruelty in their early friendships.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Truth and Beauty is the recounting of a deep, devoted friendship between two writers, Lucy Grealy and Ann Patchett, who met at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and decided to move in together. A part of Grealy’s jaw had been removed as a consequence of childhood cancer, and she underwent years of gruelling treatment and unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries. Grealy went on to develop a dependency on painkillers and later turned to heroin, by which point Patchett threatened to walk away from the friendship. Tragically, Grealy died from a heroin overdose at the age of 39, and Patchett wrote Truth and Beauty as a means to preserve her memory, and to immortalise the challenging, life-defining friendship they shared.

Sula by Toni Morrison

In Sula, Sula Peace is the charismatic friend, and Nel Wright is the observer-admirer. Sula is an escapist, worldly and daring, where Nel has conformist tendencies. The friendship is magnetic and transcendent in childhood and adolescence, but becomes toxic in adulthood. This is a strange, powerful book about female friendship operating under the oppression of racial prejudice and abject poverty.

The Girls by Emma Cline

2016’s hit novel was inspired by the ‘The Family’, the name given to Charles Manson’s followers who mainly consisted of impressionable female teenagers and vulnerable young women. The Girls is a first person narrative told from the perspective of Evie who becomes entranced by a cult member named Suzanne. Evie is drawn into the dangerous world of the cult and its activities under Suzanne’s charismatic influence.

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

The Country Girls tells the tale of childhood companions Kate Brady and Baba Brennan who are coming of age in 1950’s Ireland. Kate is the more timid of the pair, where Baba has a wild streak. The girls are expelled from convent boarding school and embark on an adventure to Dublin city, where their friendship becomes the one reliable force in their tumultuous lives. O’Brien didn’t shy away from exploring the sexual mores and societal injustice of the time, and The Country Girls was one of the first realistic treatments of young Irish women’s lives in twentieth century fiction.

Anne Perry and The Murder of the Century by Peter Graham

Here’s where intense female friendship takes a rather more dangerous turn. Anne Perry and The Murder of the Century tells the true story of Juliet Hulme (who later changed her name to Anne Perry and became a successful fantasy novelist) and Pauline Parker. Juliet and Pauline shared an intoxicating and ultimately murderous friendship. When the adults in their lives became alarmed at the teenaged friends’ mutual obsession and attempted to separate them, Juliet and Pauline plotted and carried out the murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora. The story was also given the movie treatment in Heavenly Creatures (1994) directed by Peter Jackson and starring Kate Winslet as a captivating Juliet.

My book You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here is on sale in Ireland and the UK. Check it out!

Here’s some nice stuff people are saying.

‘Few writers have articulated the intricacies of female friendship – the dependency, the uncertainty, the fragility, the pecking order – with as much authority. Most female readers (and quite a few male readers, come to think of it) are likely to squirm at the glorious recalling of these adventurous, curious girls and their nascent friendships.’ Irish Independent

‘This atmospheric debut looks like a rural Irish coming-of-age novel, but it’s cleverer, darker, more unreliable.’ Daily Mail

‘From a young age, Katie is in thrall to her spirited, selfish friend, who comes across as a modern-day Baba from The Country Girls.’ Irish Times

2 comments

  1. Sounds like a very interesting topic! Friendships, especially between women are complicated, but so rewarding when we get it right. I loved Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, by the way!

    1. Thank you Ann! The book was a lot of fun to write, that’s for sure…

      And thankfully I have some really enjoyable friendships with some very interesting people. It brings so much enjoyment and meaning to life.

      Truth and Beauty is outstanding!

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