Stories of Sisterhood: How Fiction Explores Female Friendship

Posted by Kobo March  03, 2017
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In Hollywood, female friendship often gets short shrift. Too often, a plucky sidekick offers unconditional support and witty zingers while her BFF navigates the ultimate challenge: finding true love. But novelists know that female friendship is never that simple. It is a source of great love, strength and support—but can also be messy, fragile and complicated.

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If “female friendship lit” is a genre, a modern cornerstone is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. In it, the Italian author tells a tale of two girls growing up in a poor Naples neighbourhood; both are razor-sharp, but Lila burns a little brighter, and her friend Elena knows it. Sometimes, the young women revel in each other’s fortunes; sometimes, they delight in each other’s misfortunes. There’s deep intimacy, as well as competitiveness and defiance.

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Zadie Smith explores a similar dynamic in her new novel, Swing Time, which focuses on two girls who meet in a dance class in north London. The brown shade of their skin is the same, but their talent is unequal: Tracey has a gift for movement; the unnamed narrator does not. Still, the narrator finds a chance to climb out of their shared poverty, to attend university and work as an assistant to a international pop star. Tracey, meanwhile, is left behind. As the narrator attempts to escape her childhood, Tracey’s knowledge of her friend becomes a weapon that she wields with devastating consequences.

Both Ferrante and Smith concentrate on girls who come from a similar place, but friendship between women can be just as enriching—and challenging—

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when it bridges divisions of age and class. In Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a privileged preteen and a widowed concierge discover they have plenty in common—a love of Japanese culture; a desire to find art in the world—and help nudge each other out of their shells. And in The Door, by the late Hungarian author Madga Szabó, a housekeeper and a successful writer come to rely on each other, both materially and emotionally.

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All of these novels give female friendship the nuanced, thoughtful treatment it deserves. And they show that no relationship between women is built the same; culture, class, environment, and upbringing make sure of that. They also unmistakably illustrate that such friendships are rarely simple, and never boring.

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