By Michelle Nathan
Hi all! So, in honour of my third favourite holiday of the year, Galentine’s Day (Christmas and Halloween come in 1st and 2nd, in case you were wondering) I have decided to write about 5 books that depict female friendship, in all it’s glorious complexity. Galentine’s Day is celebrated on February 13th, and is an (un)official national holiday created by fictional character Leslie Knope in my favourite TV show, Parks and Recreation. To quote Leslie, it’s about “ladies celebrating ladies,” a Valentine’s Day for your platonic loved ones.
But I have to admit, I really had to rack my brain to think of even 5 books that have female friendship at the centre of the storyline, or even fictional female friendships that really stood out in my mind as being iconic. I have a list as long as my arm for the same criteria in TV and film, but I clearly need to up my reading game to include more stories that depict memorable, complex, honest, interesting female friends, as I’m sure they do exist, I’m just not looking in the right places. Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff – the books!
1) Swing Time – Zadie Smith
I finished this book literally a few days ago, and while I wouldn’t say that I loved it (I much preferred Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and NW) I really enjoyed aspects of it, first and foremost being the relationship between the unnamed narrator and her best childhood friend, Tracey, and later her relationship with superstar Aimee. In both these friendships, the unnamed narrator plays second fiddle to her confident, dazzling, daring friends, who take the spotlight (figuratively and literally) throughout their lives and shared time together. By leaving the narrator unnamed, Smith ensure that her life is defined by those around her; her all encompassing friends, force-of-nature mother and few, brief lovers. We have all either experienced firsthand or seen this kind of unbalanced and unhealthy friendship in the world, with one person holding all of the control while the other dances like a puppet, desperate to please. Smith depicts the complexities of the unnamed narrator’s feelings towards her two friends incredibly, and interestingly doesn’t try to make the reader sympathise with the narrator due to the poor treatment by the women in her lives. She isn’t hugely likable, and makes some questionable decisions, but it was refreshing to read a book where the protagonist is so deeply affected by the platonic female friendships relationships in her life, and I was most engrossed in the story when reading about how far she will go to please them, shock them and detach herself from them once and for all (or so she thinks).
2) A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
An absolute favourite of mine, A Thousand Splendid Suns depicts the unlikely friendship that grows between Mariam, the unfortunate, illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman who is forced to marry an abusive husband, and Laila, a girl who is a generation younger than Mariam who agrees to become Rasheed’s second wife as a last resort after tragedy strikes her family. While the war in Afghanistan and rising power of the Taliban is a driving factor in the background of the novel, these two women and their relationship is the central point which the storyline revolves around. Without giving too much away, it is about pain and suffering (so have the tissues at the ready), but also the warmth and generosity you can find in the most unlikely places from the most unlikely people. It is simultaneously heartwarming and heart-breaking, and would advise anyone who hasn’t read it to do so immediately. (Seriously, stop what you’re doing / reading / eating, clear your schedule and go and get a copy of this book to read in one sitting.) The strength that these two women have, collectively and individually, is astounding and inspiring, and while they are fictional, their creation was inspired by the experiences of real women who lived through such a destructive and horrific time.
3) The Spinster Club series – Holly Bourne
I know, I know. I have mentioned these books before. But they are a wonderful, honest and realistic depiction of teenage female friendship; the kinds of friends who will help you dye your hair and host countless movie marathons with, but who will also help you face problems that seem insurmountable at the time, holding your hand while the floor gives way beneath you. I have a theory (yes, I am a scientist as well as a literary oracle) that the reason why we feel so strongly and deeply as teenagers is often because it is the first time we have had our eyes opened to the reality and difficulties in the world (but this might just be me). The ‘ignorance is bliss’ bubble of childhood has burst and now we have to, and strive to, try and solve our own problems without the aid of a wise and noble ‘adult’. Add some raging hormones to the mix and you’re going to need to bring some sympathetic, understanding friends along for the ride if you’re going to make it through in one piece. I made some of my best friends in secondary school, friends that I know I will have for the rest of my life, and I love this series of books because the girls are each given their own individual storylines and problems to face, from mental illness to tense familial relationships, but they never have to face them alone. Also, they actively try to deconstruct the patriarchy and have ‘Spinster Club’ (*whispers* feminist) meetings which is all just grand and lovely.
4) The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series – Ann Brashares
I’m going to be honest, I haven’t read these books in a very long time, but I remember them being about a group of four teenage girls, Carmen, Bridget, Lena and Tibby, going out into the world and discovering new places, trying new things and learning a lot about themselves in the process, but always being their for one another when they are needed. Also there’s a pair of jeans involved? A ~magical~ pair of jeans that grants them wishes? Wait, no, that’s not right. I do remember the books being the perfect reminder of the power of having great, positive female friends around you, in times of need and also just when you want to hang out and, you know, do fun, friend things like shop and watch TV. These books and characters will warm your lil’ heart when you’re feeling down, bring you to unexpected tears, and make you want to call your BFF’s over for a three-day long mass sleepover and Harry Potter marathon. With pillow fights. Because that’s what girls do at sleepovers, right? Have pillow fights in their underwear?! That’s what Hollywood suggests happens, anyway. (Sorry. I made my morning sarcasm smoothie a bit strong today.)
5) Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid
OK, now this one is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. Lucy is a truly excellent, insightful book about a young woman who moves from the West Indies to become an au-pair in New York for a rich American family. She is initially thrilled at the prospect of moving to America, but quickly becomes disillusioned by what she finds there. She misses her home terribly, and is shocked by the disparity of wealth between her family back home and her new employers. Throughout the course of the novel, however, she becomes close to Mariah, the matriarch of the family, who becomes almost a proxy-mother for the homesick Lucy in some ways. It is a novel about heritage, home, nostalgia and identity, in terms of culture, familial relationships and forging your own path in a new and unfamiliar world. But I also see it as a story about friendship, with is strained between Lucy and Mariah although they become close, and also Lucy and a girl named Peggy, whose confidence and independence inspires Lucy to also strike out on her own. It’s not a particularly long novel, and maybe one of best, if not the best, fictional stories about immigration I’ve read, so I would definitely give it a read if you haven’t.
That’s it from me! Please, PLEASE let me know of any other great works of fiction which have a focus, however big or small, on female friendships, as I would love to read more!
Sources for images