Lucie Whitehouse: Female Friendship in Fiction

Lucie Whitehouse: Female Friendship in Fiction

Like a lot of other people across the world, I’ve recently been engrossed by Elena Ferrante’s amazing Neapolitan tetralogy, which starts with My Brilliant Friend. Over the course of the four books, the narrator, also Elena, writes the history of her friendship with the mercurial, undoubtedly brilliant but limited Lina, starting with the memory of how, as young girls, Lina dared Elena to come with her up the stairs to the door of Don Achille Carracci, “the ogre of fairy tales”, to ask for the return of their lost dolls. It ends with Lina’s disappearance when the women are sixty-six.

The daring and the stairs are both significant – it is the first of many times Lina’s influence helps Elena face fear and to climb, eventually out of the bitter poverty and violence of the life they were born into.

One of the things that make these books so compelling is Ferrante’s honesty. The friendship between Elena and Lina isn’t easy – to these two, the cocktails and man-gossip of the friends in Sex and the City, for example, would be an alien planet. It’s a hardscrabble friendship, based not so much on love – though there’s that, too, sometimes – as much as an awareness of how absolutely necessary they are to one another. The relationship is without question the most important of either woman’s life but they take from each other as much as they give. They are rivals, they resent each other – hate each other at times – but they are bound together for life. Neither would be the person she is without the other.

To me, the power to influence and inspire is one of the most interesting aspects of friendship between women, and it’s often overlooked. In Temples of Delight by Barbara Trapido, a book I’ve loved since I was a teenager, Alice’s bourgeois world is overturned by the abrupt arrival – in the middle of Silent Reading at school – of Jem, a girl full of stories, in love with Mozart’s Magic Flute and literature. Jem disappears just as abruptly but five years later, when Alice is living a shadowy, unsatisfying life, she appears again, this time in the form of the manuscript of a novel and the magisterial New Yorker Giovanni. For Alice, Jem is colour and scale – life writ large. Because of her, Alice’s life is bigger.

In Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, described as ‘part literary novel, part self-help manual and part racy confessional’, the narrator, also Sheila, is literally searching for a way to be – ‘So how do you build your soul?’ At the beginning of the book, as her marriage ends, she meets Margaux, a talented painter, and the two become friends. Sheila says: ‘I admired her courage, her heart and her brain. I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become that same way, too.’

Friends are the first people we love outside our families or family networks – the first we choose for ourselves and as such exceptionally important, especially to those like the orphan Jane Eyre whose families have failed them. How cruel is the death by typhus of pious, brilliant Helen Burns, Jane’s one friend? The first time I read it, it cast a shadow over me for days.

Over time, true friends become our families. One of my favourite friendships in crime fiction is that between Maureen, the heroine of Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, and Lesley. Lesley rides a motorbike and works at a women’s shelter; the indelible Maureen, an alcoholic whose alcoholic father abused her, begins the series by finding her boyfriend, the married Douglas, murdered in her Glasgow flat. Lesley helps Maureen in her quest not only to discover what happened to Douglas but to take unorthodox LSD-based revenge on his killer. When Lesley gets pregnant late in the series, Maureen doesn’t worry that their friendship is going to change; instead she reflects that if she and Lesley are going to bring up this baby, she, Maureen, had better get it together and find a job.

A friendship is at the heart of my new novel, Keep You Close. The story starts when Rowan Winter hears that Marianne Glass, the high-profile young artist who was once her best friend, has died in a fall from the roof of her house in Oxford. Jacqueline, Marianne’s mother, tells Rowan that the police have ruled it an accident but Rowan is suspicious – she knows Marianne had the kind of vertigo that would stop her going anywhere near a roof-edge. As her best friend at the time, she is also the only person who knows that, years ago, Marianne did a terrible thing.

When they were teenagers, Marianne and her family, the charismatic Glasses, changed Rowan’s life, making her feel as if she belonged, encouraging her – inspiring her. Though she and Marianne haven’t spoken for ten years, she sets out to discover the truth about her death. The old ties are so powerful that in the end, they can lead Rowan to put her life itself in jeopardy.