I’ve realized over the years that I have a penchant for stories about women’s friendships. Perhaps part-ignited by paying attention to The Bechdel Test in pop culture, but also from my own history, my own friendships. I grew up in the military and as a teen often found myself in intense friendships with another girl, and then having to move away at the end of the year. I look back and think about these friendships occasionally, and wonder what might have happened if we had remained close, if I had lived the rest of my high school years in Kentucky or Virginia, and where we might be today if I had. Books about women’s friendships always stir at these feelings in me, thinking about what might’ve been, and the varying degrees of toxicity and camaraderie and love that were such powerful pillars of my adolescence.
I went to a new school for my final year before college, but in those 11 months I forged another close friendship with a student in that small town. She’s still my best friend, over a decade later. She lives just blocks away now, though we lived in different parts of the country for so many years. Our kids play together and we get wine and talk late into the night and text each other GIFs and go on trips. Our friendship, and my friendship with all the women I know, are incredibly important to me and who I am. And these books remind me of the enigma and magic of friendship.
The Neopolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante
My favorite book—series, really—about a friendship. The four books span the lifetimes of two women. Elena and Lila meet as girls in their impoverished neighborhood in Naples, Italy. In Book 1 (so darkly unsentimental for a book about the girls from ages around 5 to 16) shows them learning and orienting themselves in a world run largely by men. As they get older, their friendship mutates and shifts and fractures and evolves. I consider The Neopolitan Quartet a masterpiece, and I haven’t read anything quite like Ferrante’s searing, simmering-rage narration. She’s an enthralling writer, and after I finished this I read the rest of her novels.
Experience The Neopolitan Quartet yourself:
Sula by Toni Morrison
I read this book earlier this year because I had heard there were a lot of similarities to Ferrante’s series in terms of the central friendship. I see the parallels, but was especially wowed (as always) by Morrison’s ability to tell this complex story in less than 200 pages. It, too, spans decades about two women. Sula and Nel grew up poor in the town of Medallion, Ohio, and one of them leaves only to return years later. The book is a portrait of Black women and American society; it’s damning and hypnotic.
The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
A rapturous, heartbreaking book that captivated me as soon as I began. The Air You Breathe is the story of Dor and Graca, two girls who forge a friendship on a sugar cane plantation in 1930s Brazil—one an orphan who works in the kitchen, the other the daughter of the new plantation owner that moves in. Theirs is a complicated friendship, a complex love as they explore life, music, and fame together. Peebles writing is perfectly suited to the narrative—lyrical and tense.
"When we are young, we give ourselves completely. We allow our first friends or first lovers or first songs inside us, to become a part of our unformed being, without ever thinking of the consequences, or of their permanence within us. This is one of the beauties of youth, and one of its burdens."
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
This is my most recommended book of the last two years since I first read it. Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are animators in the male-dominated field; they team up and begin to make a name for themselves, together. I may have fallen in love with both of these characters, with their unique senses of self, and with their bond. It’s a book that the less you know about it, the better. I remember reading along, and then suddenly a twist happens near the beginning of the book, and then they don’t stop. I haven’t read anything quite like it; and I’d really LOVE more books about women working together creatively! Bonus: the audiobook and its narrator are excellent as well!
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
Cantoras is about five queer women who find a home in a remote seaside hamlet, away from Montevideo and the city streets that make it difficult to be their true selves. The history of dictator-state Uruguay is examined through their eyes. And the ways even their families cannot be trusted to see them for who they really are, lest they all get imprisoned. Or disappeared. So they make their own family. The bonds of these five over the years and decades of the book spoke to the strength of supportive communities even in times of peril. The way that human connection can sometimes be the only thing that saves a person; and the ways even that can fall short. Cantoras shook me both in sadness and in laughter. And I won’t soon forget these five women and their enduring friendship.
Buy it from our US Bookshop.
Other great books about women’s friendship:
What are your favorite novels about women’s friendship? I’m always looking for recommendations!