Three on a Theme: Novels of Female Friendship

Friendship is a fairly common theme in my reading and, like sisterhood, it’s an element I can rarely resist. When I picked up a secondhand copy of Female Friends (below) in a charity shop in Hexham over the summer, I spied a chance for another thematic roundup. I limited myself to novels I’d read recently and to groups of women friends.

 

Before Everything by Victoria Redel (2017)

I found out about this one from Susan’s review at A life in books (and she included it in her own thematic roundup of novels on friendship). “The Old Friends” have known each other for decades, since elementary school. Anna, Caroline, Helen, Ming and Molly. Their lives have gone in different directions – painter, psychiatrist, singer in a rock band and so on – but in March 2013 they’re huddling together because Anna is terminally ill. Over the years she’s had four remissions, but it’s clear the lymphoma won’t go away this time. Some of Anna’s friends and family want her to keep fighting, but the core group of pals is going to have to learn to let her die on her own terms. Before that, though, they aim for one more adventure.

Through the short, titled sections, some of them pages in length but others only a sentence or two, you piece together the friends’ history and separate struggles. Here’s an example of one such fragment, striking for the frankness and intimacy; how coyly those bald numbers conceal such joyful and wrenching moments:

Actually, for What It’s Worth

Between them there were twelve delivered babies. Three six- to eight-week abortions. Three miscarriages. One post-amniocentesis selective abortion. That’s just for the record.

While I didn’t like this quite as much as Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg, which is similar in setup, it’s a must-read on the theme. It’s sweet and sombre by turns, and has bite. I also appreciated how Redel contrasts the love between old friends with marital love and the companionship of new neighbourly friends. I hadn’t heard of Redel before, but she’s published another four novels and three poetry collections. It’d be worth finding more by her. The cover image is inspired by a moment late in a book when they find a photograph of the five of them doing handstands in a sprinkler the summer before seventh grade. (Public library)

 

Female Friends by Fay Weldon (1974)

Like a cross between The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer; this is the darkly funny story of Marjorie, Chloe and Grace: three Londoners who have stayed friends ever since their turbulent childhood during the Second World War, when Marjorie was sent to live with Grace and her mother. They have a nebulous brood of children between them, some fathered by a shared lover (a slovenly painter named Patrick). Chloe’s husband is trying to make her jealous with his sexual attentions to their French nanny. Marjorie, who works for the BBC, is the only one without children; she has a gynaecological condition and is engaged in a desultory search for her father.

The book is mostly in the third person, but some chapters are voiced by Chloe and occasional dialogues are set out like a film script. I enjoyed the glimpses I got into women’s lives in the mid-20th century via the three protagonists and their mothers. All are more beholden to men than they’d like to be. But there’s an overall grimness to this short novel that left me wincing. I’d expected more nostalgia (“they are nostalgic, all the same, for those days of innocence and growth and noise. The post-war world is drab and grey and middle-aged. No excitement, only shortages and work”) and warmth, but this friendship trio is characterized by jealousy and resentment. (Secondhand copy)

 

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (2019)

“It was exhausting, being friends. Had they ever been able to tell each other the truth?”

It’s the day before Christmas Eve as seventysomethings Jude, Wendy and Adele gather to clear out their late friend’s Sylvie’s house in a fictional coastal town in New South Wales. This being Australia, that means blazing hot weather and a beach barbecue rather than a cosy winter scene. Jude is a bristly former restaurateur who has been the mistress of a married man for many years. Wendy is a widowed academic who brings her decrepit dog, Finn, along with her. Adele is a washed-up actress who carefully maintains her appearance but still can’t find meaningful work.

They know each other so well, faults and all. Things they think they’ve hidden are beyond obvious to the others. And for as much as they miss Sylvie, they are angry at her, too. But there is also a fierce affection in the mix that I didn’t sense in the Weldon: “[Adele] remembered them from long ago, two girls alive with purpose and beauty. Her love for them was inexplicable. It was almost bodily.” Yet Wendy compares their tenuous friendship to the Great Barrier Reef coral, at risk of being bleached.

It’s rare to see so concerted a look at women in later life, as the characters think back and wonder if they’ve made the right choices. There are plenty of secrets and self-esteem struggles, but it’s all encased in an acerbic wit that reminded me of Emma Straub and Elizabeth Strout. Terrific stuff. (Twitter giveaway win)

Some favourite lines:

“The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future.”

“Was this what getting old was made of? Routines and evasions, boring yourself to death with your own rigid judgements?”

 

On this theme, I have also read: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames, Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić, The Group by Lara Feigel (and Mary McCarthy), My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Expectation by Anna Hope, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker.

 

If you read just one … The Weekend was the best of this bunch for me.

 

Have you read much on this topic?

22 responses

  1. The Weekend really appeals to me out of all of these.

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    1. I would highly recommend it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read a lot of Fay Weldon when I was younger – I think I read this one, definitely read Down Among The Women, and the Life and Loves of a She-Devil. At the time I was stunned and exhilarated by Weldon’s addressing of issues that hardly seemed to be mentioned anywhere else (certainly not in the environment in which I grew up). Maybe she would seem less radical now.

    I haven’t read any of your other choices. I did recently very much enjoy The Future Homemakers of America by Laurie Graham (a group of American Air Force wives are stuck on a US military base in the remote Fens during the Cold War. They meet a local woman and her brother, an eel catcher. The consequences of that meeting are far-reaching, but the story is about all of the women, their lives, marriages, children, and of course their friendships. I’ve just borrowed the sequel from the library.)

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    1. I can see how Weldon’s feminist approach might have resonated more a few decades ago.

      I like the sound of The Future Homemakers of America — thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. Love the sound of The Weekend.

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    1. Can’t remember – did you read The Wives of Los Alamos? 1st person plural narration.

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      1. Yes, I’ve read that one but didn’t think to include it here.

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  4. I love the idea of books about female friendship but they are so often disappointing (e.g. Expectation, which I didn’t like) though I did like the last three Ferrante books (of the quartet) a lot, and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which is thematically similar. The Weekend definitely appeals to me the most of these three.

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    1. Ah, I could have mentioned Swing Time as well (my least favourite by Smith, alas!).

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      1. It’s my favourite 🙂 followed by NW.

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      2. We have opposite ZS tastes, then 😉 I couldn’t get through NW.

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  5. Ah, one of my favourite themes. Thanks for the links, Rebecca. I have a copy of The Weekend waiting on my shelves thanks to Kim’s review at Reading Matters quite some time ago

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    1. Ooh, that’ll be a treat for you!

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  6. I always find Weldon a bit grim, to be honest, although her one about a publisher that isn’t Virago, oh, no, I remember as jollier. I read her as a young feminist and got a worrying feeling it was all going to be grimly fighting the patriarchy (which to be fair it probably has been!). You know I’ve read the original Group and I’m NEARLY up to the modern one, so terrible to get this year’s box and not have read all of last year’s …! Oh and hope you saw my Book Serendipity the other day featuring husky poo!

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    1. I wasn’t enticed to read any more of hers…

      Yes, I loved the husky poo coincidence!

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  7. Nice to see Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend getting some love here. One of my favourite writers! I find stories about female friendship very hit and miss so it’s not really a subject I hunt out… 🤷🏻‍♀️

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    1. Sisterhood is another favourite theme of mine, but it’s true that the quality of the treatment can vary a lot.

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  8. The Weekend does look good… anything compared to Strout appeals to me!

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    1. I wonder if Charlotte Wood’s books are well known in the USA? I remember Naomi (in Canada) reviewed her previous one.

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  9. I’ve loved this theme since my Judy-Blume reading days. I think of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, but it would probably disappoint you for some of the same reasons you didn’t take to Fay Weldon. (Shan’t say more in case you’ve not read it. Although I think you’ve read most of her novels by now?)

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  10. […] the Young Writer of the Year Award. I love the cover and Hamlet-sourced title, and I’m here for novels of female friendship. “In January 2016, Melissa [South London native] and Catarina [born to well-known political […]

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