Six Novels That Nail The BFF Relationship
The Debrief: Female friendships are some of the most precious things in our lives, here we explore six books that perfectly encapsulate great female BFF's
‘Why did you do all this for me?’ asked the pig in Charlotte’s Web. I don’t deserve it. I have never done anything for you. ‘You have been my friend,’ replies Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’
It’s a simple quote that encapsulates beautifully the at times miraculous, at times mystifying nature of a relationship that novelist after novelist sets out to portray. Yet the subject of female friendship — complex, affectionate, insecure, and necessary, forged in the fires of school, university and shabby rented flats — is one surprisingly few novels have truly explored.
Yes, gender is on a spectrum; yes, many girls have great guy mates; yes bromances are a beautiful thing; but the fact remains that a fromance, if you will, has a unique and magical quality that is ripe for literary exploration.That’s why Elene Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet was such an extraordinary feat. It’s subject was Elene and Lila’s friendship: not marriage, romance, adventure, though such things inevitably come into it, but friendship ‘in itself’ — in all it’s technicolored intensity. Here, then, are the stories of sisterhood that we think achieve a similar feat:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks
‘Give me a girl of impressionable age, and she is mine for life,’ declares the sharp-witted school mistress, Miss Jean Brodie: defiantly ‘in her prime’ and determined to spend it on ‘putting old heads on your young shoulders’. This is a book of many facets, but the subversive possibility of female friendship runs through it like an iron seam. Men serve only to furnish the plot: the focus here is on the Brodie set and Miss Brodie, the sun round whom they revolve. If you had a teacher at school with whom you were enchanted, intrigued and — let’s face it — borderline obsessed, this is the book for you. Not only does it capture the myopic intensity of that relationship (Sandy and Jenny even go so far as to imagine Miss Jean Brodie’s affair with a male teacher) and the vacuum in which groups of school girlfriends can operate, Muriel Spark (who based the novel largely on her teacher) draws the wordless communion that can exist between two girls with dazzling deftness: ‘Ah!’ sang Jenny, high and pure as the sea maiden of the Hebrides whom Sandy had been talking about. But her eyes swivelled over to catch Sandy’s… the girls rocked in mirth.’ Later in life a man will visit the Cathedral in which Sandy is now serving as a nun, and enquires about the main influences of her school years. She will pause, and reply: ‘There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.’
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Where to start with this rich, dazzling, devastatingly insightful quartet of companionship — the most fluent (according to me and everyone I know who has read it) rendition of female friendship you could hope to find in literature? It begins with 66 year old Elena finding out her best friend of six decades, Raffaela—Lila, as she is known—has deliberately disappeared without trace: disturbing Elena, but giving her license to reflect on their relationship without her input. Growing up in 1950s Naples, the pair are drastically different: where Elena is blonde, busty and industrious, Lila is dark, small and ‘brilliant’, intellectually speaking—inspiring in Elena a bilious mixture of admiration and writhing jealousy as she, working day and night to justify her going to school rather than helping her family, is pipped to the post by her more naturally gifted peer. Ferrante captures the obsessive nature of close friendship—‘I decided I had to model myself on that girl; never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed’—and the oppressive effects of that: receiving an extraordinarily evocative letter from Lila while away on holiday, Elena writes: ‘Lila’s world, as usual, rapidly superimposed itself on mine.’ In friendships, as in all relationships, there is always an element of dependency, and Elena lives through Lila. ‘If she withdrew, if her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty,’ Elena writes, and this vicarious energy pervades the novel as it propels and quashes her by turns. She is fascinated, inspired, motivated and subordinated. If you’ve ever inhabited this kind of all-consuming communion with a BFF, this is your song.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
If Elena Ferrante offers a brief foray into the torture one girl can inflict on another, Margaret Atwood offers a thesis. Cat’s Eye is as observant and unsettling a testimony to the sort of cruelty schoolgirls specialise in as its title implies. Elaine, a painter, has been prompted by her return to her hometown Toronto to reflect on her childhood friendship with Cordelia, the ‘BFF’ whose taunting have haunted her for 40 years. That sense of communion Spark observes between girls exists here — ‘Cordelia can outstare anyone, and I am almost as good. We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen’ — is undermined and exploited time and time again. Cordelia never openly abuses her of course; the best bullies don’t. It is subtle, insidious abuse of attrition in conjunction with two other girls, and it co-exists with actions of kindness and generosity that allow Elaine to hope that once she has improved herself, she will be accepted once more. ‘Cordelia said it would be better for me to think back over everything I have said today and try to pick out the wrong thing,’ Elaine remembers thinking — and even four decades later, she reflects that Cordelia ‘would know the right sort of cream’ for wrinkles. These are the friends who make you feel you’re not quite good enough and frame their bullying as helpfulness, so you can improve. Yet they are also the friends who you share formative experiences with, who inspire as well as instruct. Everyone has had one; some of us still do, but few have gone so far as Atwood has in imagining how far they might be pushed, and what might happen if the tables were turned.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
A friendship which develops in the most unlikely — if you’re a young woman living in 21st century Britain — scenarios is at times the sole source of light in a plot otherwise plagued by betrayal, beatings, tragedy and the Taliban. That Khaled Hosseini’s second novel (he’s the man behind the Kite Runner) has been so beloved is testimony really to just how brightly BFFs can shine. Hosseini’s early observation—that boys largely differ from girls in that ‘they don’t make a show of friendship… [treating] it the way they treated the sun: it’s existence undisputed,; it’s radiance best enjoyed, not be held directly,’ indicates his powerful insight, that is borne out as Mariam—forced into marriage at 15 and a failure in the eyes of her husband—and Laila, her young neighbour in Kabul, Afghanistan, join forces against all odds. Their friendship grows slowly, over cups of chai and the tandoor oven, and exacts confessions from both sides as they reconcile their differences. It is heartbreakingly simple: the turning point, in terms of their friendship, comes when Laila is braiding Mariam’s hair and they end up laughing together at her farting baby — yet if ever you want an example of the power of friendship, turn to this tome and marvel as the two friends take the ultimate risk and make the ultimate sacrifice not for any man, but for each other. Because when Mariam reflects that she is ‘a woman who has loved, and been loved back’, she is referring not to her husband, but to her best friend in the world.
How to be Both by Ali Smith
This dazzlingly complex, Man Booker shortlisted novel by Ali Smith is about many things: art, gender, time and loss chief amongst them. But there’s no denying that the friendship which materialises halfway through the novel between the 21st century protagonist George (the other, interconnected narrative is that of Italian Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa) and her schoolfriend Helena, or ‘H’, plays a significant role. They meet in the toilets, where the sound of George weeing is being recorded by a group of girls in one of those baffling popular pranks which schools are periodically subject to. H grabs the smartphone from the culprit and smashes it, sparing George the embarrassment of having the recording uploaded and shared. She then proceeds to bring George back from the paralysing grief of her mothers’s death with a combination of wit, playfulness, and genuine empathy guaranteed to inspire a friend crush in the reader, for all that she is fictional. They team up to do a project on del Cossa, the alternate narrator and the artist in whom George’s mum was so interested — and this too helps George through the grieving process, as she reconnects with her mother through her former passion, while at the same time making a new connection in H. Sexual overtones are implicit, but they often are in close friendships to some extent, and it doesn’t detract from the relevancy of Smith’s observations. For George, the relationship is ‘like having a conversation without needing to say anything. It is also like H is trying to find a language that makes personal sense to George ears.’
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
‘There was always this mutual awareness; an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.’ Like ‘two iron filings drawn to a magnet,’ Smith’s anonymous protagonist continues, she and Tracey are drawn together initially by the matching “light tan” colour of their skin. Growing up on a north London council estate, they bond over dancing; over the ‘old songs’ — Gershwin, Porter, Roger and Hammerstein — and the new; and if Smith’s account of two small girls devising their own choreography in their bedrooms doesn’t resonate, the image of the two friends, now in their twenties, ‘reminiscing and laughing — laughing harder than I had in three years of college’ over wines in the local certainly will. The pair are entirely different: Tracey, outgoing, rebellious, precociously skilled in dance, the narrator flat-footed, painfully self-conscious and in the shadow of a mother who considers Tracey and her mother as being “in bad taste”. Yet Smith is unflinchingly realistic about this kind of coming of age friendship: it’s inextricable intimacy as kids, the competition, the ‘cooling off; one of those things that can happen between girls,’ as they approach adulthood, and the curious sense of affinity tempered by alienation that exists thereafter as their paths continue to diverge. They know how to wound each other: Tracey, in particular, and this shapes the plot as the pair grow up and fall in and out of love, jobs and family members. Nevertheless, throughout it all, they never quite lose their ability to find their groove together, both literally and metaphorically: ‘on the stage of Tracey’s life,’ the narrator reflects at one point, ‘I had no other role to play.'
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