‘Why did you do all this for me?’ asked the pig in Charlotte’s Web. I don’t deserve it. I have never done anything for you. ‘You have been my friend,’ replies Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’
It’s a simple quote that encapsulates beautifully the at times miraculous, at times mystifying nature of a relationship that novelist after novelist sets out to portray. Yet the subject of female friendship — complex, affectionate, insecure, and necessary, forged in the fires of school, university and shabby rented flats — is one surprisingly few novels have truly explored.
Yes, gender is on a spectrum; yes, many girls have great guy mates; yes bromances are a beautiful thing; but the fact remains that a fromance, if you will, has a unique and magical quality that is ripe for literary exploration.That’s why Elene Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet was such an extraordinary feat. It’s subject was Elene and Lila’s friendship: not marriage, romance, adventure, though such things inevitably come into it, but friendship ‘in itself’ — in all it’s technicolored intensity. Here, then, are the stories of sisterhood that we think achieve a similar feat:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Where to start with this rich, dazzling, devastatingly insightful quartet of companionship — the most fluent (according to me and everyone I know who has read it) rendition of female friendship you could hope to find in literature? It begins with 66 year old Elena finding out her best friend of six decades, Raffaela—Lila, as she is known—has deliberately disappeared without trace: disturbing Elena, but giving her license to reflect on their relationship without her input. Growing up in 1950s Naples, the pair are drastically different: where Elena is blonde, busty and industrious, Lila is dark, small and ‘brilliant’, intellectually speaking—inspiring in Elena a bilious mixture of admiration and writhing jealousy as she, working day and night to justify her going to school rather than helping her family, is pipped to the post by her more naturally gifted peer. Ferrante captures the obsessive nature of close friendship—‘I decided I had to model myself on that girl; never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed’—and the oppressive effects of that: receiving an extraordinarily evocative letter from Lila while away on holiday, Elena writes: ‘Lila’s world, as usual, rapidly superimposed itself on mine.’ In friendships, as in all relationships, there is always an element of dependency, and Elena lives through Lila. ‘If she withdrew, if her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty,’ Elena writes, and this vicarious energy pervades the novel as it propels and quashes her by turns. She is fascinated, inspired, motivated and subordinated. If you’ve ever inhabited this kind of all-consuming communion with a BFF, this is your song.