Stories of Sisterhood: How Fiction Explores Female Friendship
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.