Friendship isn’t explored as often as love or family in fiction. And yet it is just as complicated and interesting and joyful a part of being human. These ten books get to the heart of friendship, those that last a lifetime and those that fade, those that change over time and those that aren’t able to.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This is the most emotional experience I have ever had reading a book. It’s 700 pages, and I powered through it over a weekend. My response was almost physical. What starts as a story about four college friends in New York quickly becomes a journey into childhood trauma and the lasting damage of abuse. By the time I reached the end Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem felt like my own friends.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
‘Contra mundum’ is Charles and Sebastian’s toast: in defiance of everyone else. Brideshead Revisited is about the intense friendships of youth. The pair spend every moment together in the privileged world of Oxford University, going to decadent parties and taking trips to Venice. And then their friendship comes to a halt. It is witty and glamorous and fun, but also incredibly poignant — a joy to read.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
There aren’t many books about platonic friendships between men and women. That’s one of the reasons that The Essex Serpent is special. Cora and Will agree on almost nothing but they’re drawn to each other, and their debates grow into a fierce friendship that, for once, isn’t just a precursor to a romantic relationship. It’s been described as Charles Dickens meets Bram Stoker, a brilliant Victorian gothic novel about science, religion and superstition.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group follows the lives of eight women in 1930s New York as they graduate from university and embark on careers, marriages and motherhood. Mary McCarthy writes with honesty and humour about the support and also the rivalry that can exist in a group of friends. Published in the 1960s, it still feels modern. It is about the stuff of life: love and infidelity, carving your place in the world and trying to break free of the expectations of your gender.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
As promised, this Pulitzer Prize-winning book is full of adventure. There are golems and evil nemeses and a battle in the Arctic, but the real story is the friendship of Kavalier and Clay. The two cousins are thrust together as children in 1940s New York and go on to create The Escapist, a comic book superhero who has the power to liberate the world from Hitler. It is an entirely unique story, a combination of fast-paced action and heartfelt introspection.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Swing Time is about a childhood friendship that doesn’t last. Two girls meet at a church hall dance class, one is intelligent but full of self-doubt, the other talented but rebellious. It is packed full of interesting ideas: questions about class, the experience of being mixed race, how we view our parents, whether talent is enough to succeed and the power balances in relationships. As always with Zadie Smith, this novel is intelligent, warm and funny.
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
With a diary format, the main character called Sheila and email exchanges and transcribed conversations inserted in each chapter, you’re never exactly sure what is real and what is imagined in this book. It’s a mixture of fiction, memoir, philosophy and self-help, and a portrait of a dynamic friendship between two artists who talk about art and life with humour and insight. Reading it feels like eavesdropping, in the best way.
Friendship by AC Grayling
Friendship, writes AC Grayling, is the “highest and finest of all human relationships”. Here, he examines what friendship is. He investigates everything from literary to internet friendships, considers whether friendships are replacing familial relationships and asks what the ancient Greek philosophers can teach us, as well as looking at his own experiences. This is an interesting and accessible book full of ideas that will leave you with a renewed appreciation for your friends.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney creates such tension and emotion from simple stories, and this is one of the best-observed portraits of modern friendship that I have read. Conversations flow seamlessly between email, face-to-face meetings and instant messenger. They don’t end, instead they form one ongoing exchange as the characters discuss relationships and socialism and jealousy with equal importance, just like real life.
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
Caitlin Moran described Animals as “Withnail with girls” and that sums it up perfectly. Laura and Tyler are in their thirties and still going out every night searching for oblivion, hedonistic and unwilling to conform to anyone’s expectations. But Laura wants out. Friendships change as people do and this is an intelligent and vulnerable portrayal of the fear of getting left behind.
Illustrations by Aysha Awwad