This week, Gayle and Nicole share their favorite books about female friendships. We mention books that explore various themes, including:
- dealing with the death of a best friend,
- competitive female friendships,
- the impact of toxic childhood friendships, and even
- a book about a girl’s friendship with a slave she was gifted on her 11th birthday.
- Links and information on the books mentioned appear at the end of this post.
- A full transcript of this episode can be found here.
Books about lead character dealing with the loss of her friend
[04:20] Days of Awe by Lauren Fox
Gayle: This was one of my favorite books the year I read it. It’s about a woman who’s going through a really tough time. She’d just gotten divorced and her best friend, who was a huge part of her life, passed away.She’s dealing with the grief, and it’s exacerbating her loneliness. She’s also got a young son, and she’s trying to be a mother while she’s grappling with all of this. Because that friendship defined her so much, it still felt like the friendship was very much a part of the book even though the character wasn’t there. It was just one of my all-time favorite books. It was so good.
Nicole: It’s the runner-up to Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
Gayle: [chuckles] Exactly.
Books that explore competitive female friendships
[06:37] Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Nicole: This was the first novel of hers I was really able to get into and read all the way through. I really liked it. It’s a story of two young girls who meet each other at dance class. They are young black girls, so they recognize each other in the world of ballet. One is a better dancer and has more talent than the other, and one of them comes from more difficult circumstances than the other. They are friends but, as can often be the case with friends if you’re in a sport or you participate in an activity like ballet, there are elements of competition there. Their friendship ends when they’re in their early twenties, but it does trace the less talented one throughout and how she interacts with this friend who, at some point, becomes a frenemy. It’s just about their fraught relationship over the years — what she chooses to do with her life and, ultimately, what happens with her friend who had so much talent and so much promise.
[08:51] Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead – another book about female friendships in the world of ballet.
Gayle: It has some very intense relationships at its core, and they are among ballerinas. The problem with ballet is it’s not a team sport, so one person’s success usually comes at someone else’s expense. So, having two people that have shared so much common experience — all the intensity of the long hours and the practice and the deprivation and the physical pain — and yet you can’t truly root for each other, the element that brings to a friendship can be really interesting so it’s unsurprising that that becomes a fertile topic for fiction.
Nicole: Yes. When you think about it, in pop culture of ballerinas, there’s always crazy things going on like when you think of Black Swan.
- Bonus: Nicole also recommends The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey if you like books that are about female friendships and you like that ballet aspect. [14:50]
Books that explore adolescent female friendships surviving into adulthood
[11:55] The Female Persuasion & The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Gayle: I’m going to combine two books by the same author because I think she handles friendships really well — Meg Wolitzer who wrote both The Interestings and The Female Persuasion. Her books are really strong character studies of friendship. The Female Persuasion is about good friends from college and how their lives diverge over the years and how they hold each other to their beliefs and idealism.
Gayle: Her other book is The Interestings which is about a group of friends coming out of summer camp. There are definitely strong female friendship elements in that one, although probably the most pivotal relationship has to do with a boy. The Interestings has to do with when you’ve got friends who are artists who achieve different levels of success, and how do you suppress your feelings of envy if your friend has made it and you haven’t and yet you feel like you’re equally talented. So it has that competitive thing, creative achievement and being recognised for your achievement both critically and financially.
She just really delves into the complications of friendships and how they weather the years for adolescence and through adulthood, and how people’s expectations for their friends change over time, and how people incorporate into friendships when they maybe start out on similar footing but end up in different places, either professionally or financially. That’s one of the ones that has multiple genders in there, but I just think if you’re talking about friendship, you can’t have a conversation about it without Meg Wolitzer in there.
Books about childhood friend reunions
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware [18:40]
Nicole: It is about four friends who reunite. They go back to the town where their boarding school was. Of course there was a tragic incident that has separated them and has consequences and repercussions for the gathering.
Books that explore the impact of toxic childhood friendships
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood [21:17]
Gayle: This is a book about girls excluding and being mean to other girls and, then, the impact that has on the rest of their life. It takes place in middle school. The main character, a woman named Elaine, was friends with a group of girls. A new girl comes in, and that girl is a mean girl. They are very mean to Elaine, and they destroy her confidence. She spends her life trying to recover from this horrible blow to her confidence that had happened when she was in middle school at the hands of this awful girl. Later in life, they cross paths and she has to decide — Can she forgive? Does she have it in her to be kind to this woman later on?
Books that explore the impact of supportive female friendships
The Color Purple by Alice Walker [23:55]
Nicole: I read this book much later than when it came out, and I was just stunned. It’s such a beautiful book. The main character is a woman named Celie. She’s in a very abusive relationship. She’s been separated from her sisters. She ultimately writes letters to her sister and it’s just about her life — she has a very abusive husband; she doesn’t love herself very much or feel comfortable in her skin. Over the course of the book, you see her try to grow and nurture herself out of this marriage, and you see the role that female friendship plays. If you have not read The Color Purple by Alice Walker, then you’re in for a treat. Even though there is some brutality in this relationship that young Celie has with her husband, the support, the role of female friendship in this novel is something you can’t miss.
Books about group friendships
The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames and Invincible Summer by Alice Adams [27:08]
Gayle: The Other’s Gold is about a group of four women from college and their friendship over time. Invincible Summer by Alice Adams is also about four friends from college. It has two boys in the mix too. It follows four people in England. After they graduate, they move to the city, and their lives go in different directions. It’s checking in on them over the course of years as they go through rites of passage of adulthood — get married, have kids, all of that — and just the role that they play in each other’s lives and expectations and how things change. Those two feel linked to me. If you like books about friendships getting into adulthood and groups of college friends, they’re both good ones to read.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson [32:02]
Nicole: One of the friends dies, and one of the friends is reminiscing about her friendship growing up in Brooklyn. The four women, who were girls at the time, made it so worthwhile. They were young girls growing up on gritty city streets and there were a lot of things that happened. It wasn’t an idyllic childhood. The fact that they were able to navigate their adolescence together made it stronger. Though they go their different ways — they’re not all friends as adults — the book is reminiscing of their friendship and all the things that got this woman to be where she is.
Bonus: She has another book coming out in paperback and it’s called Red at the Bone. She’s such a great writer. She’s a spare writer, so every sentence and every word is well placed and packs a punch.
Gayle tries out being a rebel and adds a book about male-female friendship
One Day by David Nicholls [34:45]
Gayle: This is the book that checks in on a pair of friends on the same day every year for a certain number of years and charts their friendship over time. Some years they’re in touch with each other, and some years they’re not. It shows how their own lives have changed and how their friendship has changed. It’s not a female friendship so it doesn’t quite fit the category–
Nicole: [laughs] “Quite.”
Gayle: Okay. It doesn’t fit the category, but it’s about friendship and I really like that one. I think it was interesting because it showed there were some years they weren’t in each other’s lives. I thought that was a realistic depiction of friendship.
The unrealistic depiction of friendship in books
Gayle: Sometimes, in books, friendship is a bit simplified. [36:19]
Sometimes, these friendships, it’s taken for granted that they’re always close and they’re always there for each other with equal measure of enthusiasm and availability, and that’s not how friendships are in real life. I like books that incorporate that realism in there. I do enjoy when authors acknowledge that friendships can be a little more inconsistent with time.
Can a master and a slave be friends?
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd [38:43]
Nicole: I read the Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Talk about tension in friendships. It is about one of the Grimké sisters, [Sarah]. The Grimké sisters were abolitionists and they were also Quakers. They were totally against slavery. For whatever reason, [Sarah] is gifted a slave (Hetty) for her birthday whom she doesn’t want. They’re both around the same age, and this happens when she’s around . So, this is about their relationship over the years. There’s just a lot of tension and a lot of changes in this relationship — can this really be a true friendship when one person owns the other? It was interesting. Of course, it’s one-sided. This woman who was assigned to be her servant, you don’t know what she thought. This is all from the knowledge of one’s woman life and her letters and where she was, and what point the other woman in her life disappeared. It’s historical; it’s a skillful imagining; and it definitely has the ups and downs and the tension you would expect in a relationship that is forced.
Gayle and Nicole share their backlist books
Best Boy by Eli Gottlieb [41:36]
Gayle: This is a book about a man who is autistic, and he is in his fifties. He’s living in a group home for people who are living on the spectrum. It’s about his existence and his relationship with his younger brother. He has a younger brother from whom he’s been estranged for a long time but for whom he still has very warm feelings. His mother has died, and that’s why he’s living in an institution. Few visitors and not much of a life outside of the institution, but he’s constantly awaiting a visit from his brother. It’s told through the perspective of the man who has autism, so it has a glimpse into that life. I think the author has a sibling who has autism, so it’s very much in his own life experience. It was a sad book, but he did a really nice job of giving this man dimension and humanity and emotion even though those aren’t things you normally ascribe to people who have autism.
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni [43:51]
Nicole: I love this book so much. It opens with a young woman sitting in an Indian passport and visa office. She’s in an unidentified city in the United States. I got the vibe it was California from reading the book. She is observing the employees around her, the other people in the passport office attending to business, and just ruminating about their lives when an earthquake happens and, then, they are all trapped in this office together, buried under rubble. They don’t have much expectation that they are going to be rescued, and they go round and they start sharing things from their lives. It was so beautifully written. The things that the characters share and how they come together for each other in such a dire circumstance was so good.
Other books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Before We Visit the Goddess and The Mistress of Spices.
Let us know your favorite books about female friendship! We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Readerly Report. Gayle and I would love to hear about your favorite books about female friendship.
Black Swan (2020)