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Books about friendships often land on my list of favorite books, along with family dramas. What makes family dramas so compelling–characters bound together by genetic chance–is actually the opposite with books about friends.
While circumstances certainly conspire to bring friends together, what keeps them together is always choice.
That’s one reason I love reading books that follow long friendships. No matter how dramatic or tragic things get, there’s always this element of choice–to stay, to leave, to fight or not fight–that comes into play, and the lack of legal or familial ties makes it all the more fascinating.
This is true with both fiction and nonfiction. Friendships may be denied official importance and status in our society, but the central role they play in our lives is evident in how often authors choose to mine the topic.
Today, I’m circling back to a full year ago when this week’s Nonfiction November topic of Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey) first came up.
Last year, I asked for recommendations for books about friendships. I had a few in mind that I wanted to read and I’m pleased to say that I read those, as well as a few others this year.
Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to all of the great recommendations I received last year, but I’ve included at least one below that is still on my list.
Because I also love reading fiction books about friendships, this list serves double-duty and includes both. The fiction list could be MUCH longer, but I’ve chosen some favorites and some recent reads.
I hope you’ll chime in with your favorite–fiction or nonfiction–books about friendships.
Nonfiction Books About Friendships
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship is the story of the two-decade friendship between author Ann Patchett and the late poet and author Lucy Grealy. The two women met in college and cemented their friendship in graduate school and the years that followed, as both pursued writing careers. Grealy, who in childhood battled cancer that left her without part of her lower jaw, endured ongoing health difficulties and reconstructive surgeries.
Grealy was a needy, all-consuming friend–talented, tortured, and plagued by both addiction and her need for love, even as love surrounded her. Patchett, for her part, longed to be a part of Grealy’s inner circle before she ever was, and she basked in Lucy’s need for her, as well as their shared goals and talent. The two moved toward success together, and the journey must have felt magical and pre-destined, if not always healthy. As always, I love Patchett’s writing, and listening to her narrate was a pleasure.
Twenty-six years ago, during the infancy of heart transplant surgery, Amy Silverstein received a new heart. Now in her fifties, that heart is failing, and she again waits for a new heart. Her wait requires a move to California with her husband, and with them, nine of Amy’s closest friends sign onto a schedule to keep constant vigil at her bedside. Each bring different histories and qualities to the hospital room and support Amy by turns with empathy, no-nonsense attitudes, shared memories, and persistence. They pass the baton to one another, flying in from across the country for their times with their friend.
This is a brutally raw memoir of suffering and friendship. Amy is unflinching her examination of herself and what it means to be a sick person, dependent on others, and what it means in such a situation to find the balance between caring for yourself and caring for those who surround you. It’s precarious, and the scales tip easily when emotions run high, requiring extraordinary feats of forgiveness and understanding from all. Highly recommended.
This memoir by Eva Hagberg Fisher reflects on her lonely upbringing with a disconnected mother, several stepfathers, and years in boarding schools, and how it affected her difficulties connecting with others as an adult. When a mass in her brain ruptured at age 30, she was forced to allow others into her life. Of particular importance was a friendship with an older woman named Allison, who was battling cancer herself. Allison’s friendship taught Eva how to let others love her, without needing to pay them back with anything but acceptance and love. She further learned this when she began suffering from symptoms of something that no one could seem to diagnose. This is the story of Eva’s struggles to accept the love and friendship offered to her when she needed it the most.
This book about the power of female friendships was a little drier than I expected, but it was peppered with pop culture and personal anecdotes, which kept me reading. I was hooked when the book started with a long reflection on the movie Beaches–a movie I first watched with one of my childhood best friends when we were about ten. It quickly became our all-time favorite, and so this seemed like a book I was meant to read. Even so, this book didn’t resonate with me as much as it might with someone a bit younger. It did make me reflect on those wonderful years when friends were everything, and wish that my lifelong friends were not all many states away.
The only book on this list that I haven’t yet read, this was brought to my attention last year. It sounds lovely and profound–just look at this description: “Beginning with the rediscovery of a long-lost best friend, INTO THE TANGLE OF FRIENDSHIP follows the intertwining stories of a cast of characters for whom friendship is a saving grace. We meet a next-door neighbor facing the death of a spouse, watch two young boys learn what it means to be friends, and feel the heartache of a professional caregiver whose compassion and dedication ultimately come up short. Kephart is concerned with the haphazard ways we find one another, the tragedy, boredom, and sheer carelessness that break us apart, the myriad reasons people stay together and grow. What is friendship, and what is its secret calculus?”
Lab Girl, which I’ve only been listening to this month, would actually be an excellent addition to my fiction/nonfiction list of books about trees. Hope Jahren is a scientist who studies trees, plants, seeds, and soil. This book is a reflection on her journey from childhood days playing under father’s laboratory tables to leading her own labs and research.
I passed by this book many times before trying it, and I am enthralled by Jahren’s writing, her keen and poetic observations of the natural world, and her grave, sometimes deadpan and sometimes dramatic narration of the audiobook. Love of science is at the core of Jahren’s story, but human relationships also take center stage, particularly when it comes to Jahren’s eccentric colleague Bill. They share a devotion to the work and to each other that defines both of their professional lives. Their adventures in science (and the pursuit of science, in the form of funding, equipment, and even livable wages) are delightful and unexpected.
Fiction Books About Friendships
I love a good novel about friendships. I’ve included some of my favorites here, and most of these are about positive (if complicated) friendships. But we all know that there are many great stories about dysfunctional, dark, and twisted friendships as well–I’m thinking of The Secret History, Social Creature, and many others. Feel free to share your favorite books about positive or toxic friendships.
When Cornelia and her husband, Teo, move from the city to the suburbs, she is eager to make friends. Instead, she feels the weight of her neighbor Piper’s ruthless judgment. Another woman, Lake, seems to be a promising friend, but her inscrutable behavior and mood changes leave Cornelia confused. But she unwittingly becomes central to both women’s lives as Piper cares for her dying friend and Lake’s son takes a liking to Cornelia’s family.
I was a little hesitant when I started this book, because I just don’t have a lot of patience for reading about the gossip and maneuvering of suburban women. While this book did have some of that, it was presented more as something to overcome on the way to deeper relationships, rather than as a plot driver. I was surprised to find that the cattiest of all of the characters ended up being on of my favorites–but really, all of the characters here were intriguing and at least somewhat likable. de los Santos’ thoughtful writing of the characters and their growing relationships kept me reading and would prompt me to try out more of her books.
My favorite book of 2019, The Great Believers is set in two time periods, the first in 1980s Chicago, in the thick of the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the second in 2015 Paris.
Yale is a young man in Chicago who has just found his stride in his career at a Northwestern art gallery, his relationship with his partner, Charlie, and the thriving gay community known as Boystown. But the community he loves is being hit by AIDS, and his immediate circle has finally been affected by the death of his friend Nico. Fiona is Nico’s sister who has adopted Yale and the rest of the friend group as her own family, even as they fall one-by-one to the virus. This decision reverberates through her life, alienating her from her daughter, who she searches for in Paris in 2015.
Want to know more about this book? Check out 11 Things to Know About The Great Believers: The Story of the Story
The first in The Neapolitan Novels series, My Brilliant Friend tells the story of the friendship of two girls growing up in a poor, rough neighborhood in 1950s Naples, Italy. Lila especially is compelling in her impulsive magnetism, and I related to the bookish reserve of Elena (the narrator), always trying to keep up with her friend even as she, in many ways, surpasses her. As they follow different paths and forge their own identities, the girls weather the push and pull of adolescence experienced amidst the changing political and cultural landscape that surrounds them.
These novels are highly acclaimed for their literary merit, panned for their awful covers, and intriguing for the mystery surrounding the identity of Ferrante (a pen name).
Lainey, Ji Sun, Alice, and Margaret are roommates and best friends in college, and the independence and intensity of campus life bonds them forever. Over the years, as the women graduate and move into adulthood, each makes a terrible mistake. The book walks through each–the Accident, the Accusation, the Kiss, and the Bite–examining the shifts and evolution in the women and their friendships.
I loved following the women through the ups and downs of their friendships--The Other’s Gold is easily one of my favorite books of 2019. They are each differently flawed, and these flaws tinge their relationships in wonderfully complex and subtle ways, forcing the women to again and again examine themselves, their values, and their loyalties.
The story of three friends–Jonathan, Bobby, and Clare–who are devoted to one another, in different ways. Jonathan, who is gay, plans to father Clare’s child, until Clare and Bobby fall in love. The three leave New York City and move to a small house upstate to raise Clare and Bobby’s child, creating their own kind of family.
This is a good book for people who enjoy stories about the complexities of friendships, the push and pull that can come with groups of friends, and how relationships are affected when two of the friends become romantically involved. Similar, in ways, to 2018’s Tin Man.
After Meredith Delinn’s husband Freddy is charged with cheating investors out of billions (think Bernie Madoff), she flees to Nantucket to her old friend Connie’s home. She hopes to hide out, resurrect their friendship, and clear her name. The past and present are both complicated, and Meredith and Connie find themselves looking back on how they got here, while also trying to imagine futures without the husbands who defined their lives for so long.
While this isn’t my favorite Hilderbrand–it feels a little darker than some others–I did appreciate the older women protagonists and the focus on their friendship. This did jump back and forth in time a lot, so it was a little harder to follow as I started and stopped listening, but overall this was another good audiobook choice.
When introverted May, a gardener at the local university, is granted some extra time off, she decides to reconnect with some old friends–in person. She makes plans to visit them, and hopes to rekindle their closeness and her own dedication to the friendships.
May is a relatable character, especially for introverts, and many readers loved this book. It didn’t quite gel for me–the slow beginning seemed beside the point–but May does come into sharper focus when she finally makes her visiting plans. She is a nice, quietly quirky houseguest and this may be worth a try if you enjoy books about loner characters and their relationships.
Four friends move to New York after graduating from college with big dreams of successful careers. JB is an artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm an architect, and Jude a lawyer. The story brings the reader into the lives of each of the men, finally landing on Jude. It’s at this point that it’s clear that this is not just another post-collegiate New York story. Jude is insular and mysterious, and as the story progresses, the degree of his damage and suffering emerges.
A Little Life covers decades in the life of the men and it is one of the most devastating, riveting books I’ve ever read. Many readers count it among their favorites–just as many say they loved it but could never read it again. For more, also check out The Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn’t Know about A Little Life.
The Gunners is a story of childhood friendships revisited in adulthood. This is a common theme that often seems to be explored in more sinister books–The Chalk Man and several by Stephen King come to mind. While there are hints of underlying darkness in this book–the driver for the reunion, after all, is the suicide of one of the friends–the story is less about the sinister than about the friendships.
Mikey Callahan is the only one of six childhood friends to remain in their hometown, aside from the long-estranged Sally, who has taken her life in adulthood. The remaining friends trickle into town for the funeral, reconnect, and confess old and new secrets.
As long-held misunderstandings are remedied, the friends realize that they may not have known each other as well as they thought–but also that this unknowing is a constant in relationships, and they can endure anyway. While not everything is resolved–as it almost never is in the case of suicide–this is a lovely book about the power of friendship, forgiveness, and acceptance.
Wallace Stegner adds levels of complexity to the topic of friendship by examining the decades-long friendships and relationships of two couples. First meeting at the start of the men’s academic careers in Wisconsin, Larry and Sally and Sid and Charity instantly fall into a foursome that lasts through decades of work, play, children, sickness, travel, conflict, and heartache. These are quiet lives, punctuated with successes and disappointments, driven by ambition, intellectual pursuits, and their closeness with one another.
They are a privileged circle, moving through times of war and Depression but largely untouched (and cushioned by the riches of one of the couples). And while these events do provide a backdrop for the times, as with most people it’s the small moments and personal memories that loom large, especially as they reflect on them late in life.
Stegner’s writing is impeccable, if a bit of a slow read–mostly because there were lines so poignant I backtracked to read them again. He is an author I plan to read more of, and this book is one I will likely read several times in years to come.
Please share your own favorite books about friendships–fiction and nonfiction!