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5 Great Books on Friendship

Updated on April 26, 2017

Our culture seems to promote love over friendship. Although each culture has its own sayings and proverbs underlining the importance of friendship, it is generally considered as something less mature and inferior to marriage (or its less official equivalent) which is supposed to be the only relationship that really matters. Relationships that are not sexual are debased and letting them slip by over the years meets with people’s understanding. William Deresiewicz in his article “Faux Friendship” puts it into such words:

“We save our fiercest energies for sex… we’ve taught ourselves to shun expressions of intense affection between friends… the typical bromance plot instructs the callow bonds of youth to give way to mature heterosexual relationships. At best, intense friendships are something we are expected to grow out of.”

However, not staying in touch with one’s old friends is one of the top five regrets of dying, which proves that only with hindsight do we realize how important friendships are. If you have ever wondered about the motivations for your friend’s behavior, here’s a list of great anatomies of friendship that can shed light on your own. The novels I recommend reflect on friendship in an astute mature way, giving us a lot of insight into its nature and significance. On the surface the selected books might seem similar, yet the styles, tone and stories are totally different.

1. Meg Wolitzer The Interestings (2013)

The novel follows a group of brilliant teenagers who bond at an arts summer camp in upstate New York in 1974 up through their adulthood. When they meet, Cathy Kiplinger wants to be a dancer, Ethan Figman has already invented his own cartoon, Ash Wolf and Jules Jacobson want to be actors, Jonah Bay, a folk singer’s son, has some talent but for some reason resists it, and Goodman Wolf has no plans for the future, which makes him the target of his parents’ constant criticism. Of all the friends only Ethan and Ash fulfill their dreams and become very successful. The others have to cope with the disappointments and answer the questions, such as:

“…how long do I put myself out there…? … When do I stop? When I'm twenty-five? Thirty? Thirty-five? Forty? Or right this minute? Nobody tells you how long you should keep doing something before you give up forever. You don’t want to wait until you’re so old that no one will hire you in any other field either.”

The novel charts the way the characters change, how they gradually give up their ideals and dreams and revalue the importance of creativity in their lives, and how they deal with working dead-end jobs. It’s a novel about doing what you love and how you feel when you cannot, and how the world treats creative people. What I like about it is also that friendship and love are depicted as processes. The novel attempts to pinpoint and explore the moments when friendship and its significance and role in one’s life shift over years; when and why people who have told each other everything stop doing so, how they deal with other people’s success, and, finally, how love takes over friendship.

Some Memorable Quotes

“But this post-college world felt different from everything that had come before it; art was still central, but now everyone had to think about making a living too, and they did so with a kind of scorn for money except as it allowed them to live the way they wanted to live.”

“I always thought it was the saddest and most devastating ending. How you could have these enormous dreams that never get met. How without knowing it you could just make yourself smaller over time. I don't want that to happen to me.”

“For while they'd stayed close during the absurd years of his sharp rise, having children had knocked it all into a different arrangement. The minute you had kids you closed ranks. You didn't plan this in advance, but it happened. Families were like individual, discrete, moated island nations. The little group of citizens on the slab of rock gathered together instinctively, almost defensively, and everyone who was outside the walls—even if you'd once been best friends—was now just that, outsiders.

2. Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life (2015)

A group of guys who have met at a small Massachusetts college move to New York to fulfill their ambitions. JB is a receptionist at an art magazine but does art projects in his spare time, Willem aspires to be an actor but waits the tables for the time being, Malcolm is a frustrated architect who works for a prominent firm to impress his parents, and Jude is a great lawyer and mathematician. It is around his enigmatic and mysterious figure that the circle of friends gyrates. Gradually, the novel concentrates on Jude’s traumatic past and its influence on the rest of his life. The book follows the characters over time with their different fortunes and changing shades of their friendships. It explores the questions of what it means to be a good friend, how to deal with your friends’ accomplishments, what makes people interesting. It is also full of reflections on ambition and success, loneliness, the meaning of work in one’s life, the perception of friendship and couplehood in the society, coping with the excruciating boredom of daily routine, and how jobs, money and children change people. It’s a devastating, heart-breaking and life-changing read.

Some Memorable Quotes

“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”

When did pursuing your ambitions cross the line from brave into foolhardy? How did you know when to stop? … these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. … Would he someday have the courage to give up, and would he be able to recognize that moment, or would he wake one day and look in the mirror and find himself an old man, still trying to call himself an actor because he was too scared to admit that he might not be, might never be?”

“Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? … He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship? Why was it admirable when you were twenty-seven but creepy when you were thirty-seven? Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

3. Donna Tartt The Secret History (1992)

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation” is the first sentence of the novel. Guessing rightly that it is the “we” who are responsible for Bunny’s death, the reader is introduced into a circle of five maverick university students: Henry, Francis, Bunny, the twins Camilla and Charles, and Richard who joins them last and narrates the whole story. The clique revolves around a charismatic classics professor, Julian Morrow, who picks a small group of students to teach, a select secret society, as he sees them, and infects them with the ideals of beauty and art during the classes that he regards as “entering the sublime.” The first semester at Hampden College is an account of developing friendships: frequenting parties and restaurants, Sunday dinners at Camilla and Charles’s, visits to Francis’s country house, where they drink, read, and engage in intellectual discussions. After the winter, however, Richard discovers that his friends have their secrets, one of which is a Dionysian rite that they enacted under the influence of their professor. From then on things start to unravel, and the rest of the book details the steps by which the friends come to murder Bunny and what price they pay for doing it. The novel is written in a beautiful evocative language in which it describes all the shades of the characters’ personalities as well as the nuances of their friendships.

Some Memorable Quotes

“After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.”

“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”

“The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant—the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.”

4. Joanna Rakoff A Fortunate Age (2009)

The novel details the lives of a group of friends, Sadie, Lil, Beth, Emily, Tal and Dave, who graduate from Oberlin College in 1998 and move to New York to start their adulthood. All of them have rich parents who they consider spoiled and boring, “too corrupted, too swayed and jaded by the difficulties and practicalities of adulthood, by the banal labyrinths of health insurance and Roth I.R.A.’s, by the relative safety of Volvo versus Saab versus Subaru.” So the young people struggle to make a living without their parents’ dreaded help, already starting to feel “a little tired, a little sick of the nights in cafés typing on their laptops, the endless drink dates because who could afford to eat dinner out.” They devour art, read trendy magazines and joke “about Derrida and Lacan and Heidegger and Hume and Spinoza and New Criticism,” while they harbour artistic ambitions: Dave wants to be a musician, Beth and Lil want to be academics, Sadie plans to work in publishing, and Emily and Tal aspire to be actors. We follow the shifting dynamics of their friendships as they try to realize their dreams, start new romantic relationships, get married and have children and, in the meantime, negotiate the answers to the questions: how to swallow disappointments, if/when to give up, how to deal with your friends questioning your choices, how people change under the influence of marriage, how women give up their feminist ideals, and how and why friendships disintegrate.

Some Memorable Quotes

“She wanted him the way he’d been the summer before Lil’s wedding, when they’d laughed at Dave’s sulks and moods, and spent their evenings drinking wine in one café or another, when he’d been on the verge of breaking through, the two of them giddy with possibility.”

“I just don’t think that ‘the one’ exists. I think we make choices. We decide who ‘the one’ is, but we don’t realize we’re deciding because our, I don’t know, conscious minds are saying ‘This is the one’. But there are all these other people out there, who we could just as easily fall in love with and make a life with. It would just be a different life, a different sort of being in love.”

Just deal with it, Sadie had longed to say, we’re all bored and frustrated. Who was Lil to think that her life could be perfect, that she was exempt from the compromises her friends – everyone in the world – had been forced to make in order to maintain some semblance of happiness, of sanity, in order to live a productive life, a meaningful life?

5. Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend (2011)

Book 1 of The Neapolitan Novels is a story of friendship of two girls, Elena and Lila, who live in the 1950s in the poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. Elena sums up their austere childhood in this way: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all…” School is the only place in which Elena feels safe. In the first grade she meets Lila – she is fascinated by her, and hates her, and envies her, and competes with her. The friendship of the two ambitious, intelligent and strong girls blooms through the love of books and knowledge and the dreams of publishing their own writing. The novel masterly captures the small meaningful moments of their complex relationship, always attempting to get to the core of the characters’ motivations. It’s usually about being better than the other: when the teacher Maestra Oliviero praises Lila in front of the class, Elena feels “the poison of defeat”; when Elena becomes the best student at school, Lila makes malicious comments, when Elena’s grades get worse, she (Elena) hangs out with another girl out of shame. Their paths start to diverge when Elena takes the exams to middle school but Lila doesn’t because her father can’t see the point in a girl’s education. And yet Lila doesn’t stay behind intellectually: when she finds out Elena is going to study Greek at middle school, she borrows Greek Grammar from the library. Elena wonders bitterly: “She had begun to study Greek even before I went to high school? She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?” And so the fierce competition continues through middle school and after, through boys and summers, and the splitting pathways of life, with unforgivable deeds and hurts, and the accompanying warmth and understanding.

Some Memorable Quotes

“[S]he was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.”

“Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite. And there was nothing in her appearance that acted as a corrective.”

“I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave with her something of mine that she would never give back.”

Which book would you like to read most?

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    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 6 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Dear Sonya, I think you've listed pretty interesting novel selections. They all seem to probe deep meaningful friendships. I agree with you, most people gravitate toward romantic love interests, or sexy novels. But remember love stories without conflict are boring. The most successful love stories either finish with terrible heartbreak or victory after a long period of suffering. But there's noting wrong with the type of novels you've listed in this article. If I ran into one of them I'd pick it up.