This is a novel of an unlikely friendship between two women—a famous Hungarian writer named Magda and her cleaning woman, Emerence, who is robustly anti-intellectual and anti-religious. Nothing is predictable about this relationship, most especially the intensity of their intimacy. Emerence is the power and force in this novel and in the friendship. Magda, who is allowed into her friend’s life as no one else has been, comes to understand how ultimately little she really knows of even those she loves most.
I spent every afternoon until I graduated high school in a ballet school run by my mother so Zadie Smith’s novel of female friendship formed under the precision and rigor of dance was an inevitable draw for me as a reader. It has all the queasy delight of that dance world—ambitious moms, the competitive hierarchy, the harsh reality of a dancer’s body, the joy of movement and creation—as well as the larger dynamics of class and race that Smith deftly and profoundly explores in her novels. I wanted desperately to feel that dance united the two girls. But like Ferrante, Smith explores how spoken and unspoken differences begin to drive these once inseparable best friends further and further away from one another.
So many novels on one level focus on the success or failure of a woman in relation to her life with a man. Certainly, Jane Eyre is most often read as the coming-of-age story that culminates in the marriage to Rochester. But Jane’s relationships with women, starting with her dearest childhood connection, Helen, are what actually sustain and anchor Jane. When Jane has reached her lowest moment it is the River sisters, Jane and Diana, who literally nurse Jane back from the brink of death and then continue to nurture her as their intellectual companions. It is no accident that having entered the safety of the sisters’ home the first very time Jane feels that “I began once more to know myself.”
Let's Take the Long Way Home
Here is a gorgeous friendship memoir, one that I’ve read more than a couple of times because the connection between the two women feels so alive and true. It is not often that as adults we have the chance to make a friendship that takes a prime position in the everyday life but that is exactly what Caldwell and her dear friend, author Caroline Knapp did, making each other “the necessary pillars of life.” As a writer, I learned from Caldwell how to manage a book’s core grief—the death of a friend—with the more essential core—how friendship endures through even the ultimate devastation.
The Woman Upstairs
This quite chilling novel shows the tricky side of female friendship. It’s the friendship crush that goes awry, a story of manipulation and idealization. This psychological thriller of a novel, narrated by Nora who either been lured into or insinuated herself into the life and artwork of Sirena, examines the terrible effects of projection. This novel raises the haunting question of whether we are betrayed in friendship by another or by our own expectations and behaviors.
While I was writing Before Everything, I thought a lot about other books on female friendship. I was surprised that there are so few for a subject that is one of the most cherished and vital aspects of any woman’s life. Many novels, perhaps driven by the need for conflict, highlight the tortured or betrayed friendship. What about the ways that female friendship emboldens women’s lives and makes possible a frame for living more adventurously?
Before Everything is about the challenges, complications, and pleasures of women’s friendship over a lifetime—it’s about the power and endurance of friendship, and the effect one life can have on those around her. Ming, Molly, Anna, Helen, and Caroline, now in their early 50’s, have a friendship that has thrived since childhood, one that has accommodated an enlarging circle of new friends born out of their different jobs, neighborhoods and marriage choices. They’ve participated in each stage of one another’s lives. Now they are facing the loss of one of their own as Anna, the group leader, makes the choice to stop medical treatment and each woman must face her own relationship to friendship and mortality. From two of my all-time favorite childhood books: The novel Heidi and Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life, I forged a belief that the closeness between girls might remain essential in adult life. Here are some books I love that celebrate the diversity of female friendships from childhood through adulthood.
Featured image: Volodymyr Tverdokhlib/Shutterstock.com; Author Photo: © Sigrid Estrada