Some mysteries are so intractable that each generation of readers has to discover them anew. To many enthusiastic reviewers, the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is finally giving the potent and perilous female friendship the literary attention it deserves. That sequence of four novels begins with the 1950s girlhood of Elena and Lila and ends with Lila’s disappearance in her 60s, just at the moment when Elena at last feels able to write about their ambivalent bond.
But is Elena and Lila’s friendship any more complicated and consuming than, for example, the betrayed love of Nel Wright for Sula Peace in Toni Morrison’s Sula, or the remorse-haunted obsession of Alison, the narrator of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, with that novel’s title character? In 1988 and 1993, Margaret Atwood published two masterpieces, Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, about the power of friendships to sustain and (more often) to torment the girls and women enmeshed in them. At the time, critics and readers argued that Atwood’s willingness to offer such an unrosy picture of how girls and women sometimes treat their closest friends was a defiance of then-prevalent feminist beliefs in women’s nurturing essence and “connected knowing.” But an essay Atwood wrote for the New York Times in 1986 about “the Best Girlfriends motif” shows that she saw herself as preparing to join an already thriving tradition fed by Morrison, Alice Walker, Gail Godwin, and Joyce Carol Oates, who in 1985’s Solstice found transgressive eroticism and imminent violence—her siren’s calls—in the possessive friendship between two Pennsylvania women.
This is a subject great novelists have been writing about for decades, yet each new instance tends to get treated as a revelation, a foray into seldom-visited territory. Better to leave off the marveling and ask how (and if) a novelist brings something fresh to the theme. Claire Messud mostly doesn’t in The Burning Girl, her slim, semigothic novel tracing the estrangement of Julia and Cassie, two contemporary teenagers in small-town New England and best friends since nursery school. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know her,” Julia, the narrator muses, “when I didn’t pick her sleek white head out of a crowd and know exactly where she was in a room, and think of her, some ways, as mine.” Recalling the idyllic summer of her 13th year, Julia sets down the pattern for the rest of the novel: She is cautious and stable; Cassie is daring and mercurial. On Cassie’s initiative, the two girls break into a derelict insane asylum, a setting so cinematically portentous you realize that it will be the scene of the story’s climax long before Julia does. They volunteer in an animal shelter, where Cassie’s fondness for breaking the rules about entering a pit bull’s cage leads to a mauling.
The enjoyability of The Burning Girl, while not inconsiderable, is a function of its familiarity. The school year begins. Cassie befriends a racy classmate and starts running with the party crowd. Class, often a wedge in novels of female friendship, makes itself increasingly felt. Julia is on the college track; Cassie is not. Cassie’s widowed mother starts dating a creepy doctor—the same doctor, in fact, who sewed up Cassie’s dog bites. Cassie dates the boy that Julia likes, and Julia doesn’t date at all.
Sex, more than any other force, fractures the seemingly inseparable girlhood friends of fiction, although sex and class are themselves often impossible to separate. In Sula, Nel chooses respectability, becoming a wife and mother, while Sula flaunts propriety, living and loving how she pleases on society’s outskirts. But Sula’s is a freedom she doesn’t know how to exercise without hurting the people she loves—that is, if she can love at all, which her own grandmother doubts.
Messud knows that she’s relating a tale with archetypal resonance. The house where Cassie lives stands, like the cottage in a fairy tale, on the verge of a wood that the girls have nicknamed “the Encroaching Forest.” Although Messud speckles the novel with references to Lady Gaga, Supernatural, and Instagram, Julia and Cassie roam the town and the woods alone with the implausible independence of the kids in E.T. They have smartphones, but their lives seem nearly untouched by the internet and the vast, compelling, immaterial social realm now layered over our physical lives. Cassie, like Little Red Riding Hood, is menaced by primal forces. Animals play a significant role in moving the plot along. The whole narrative feels set slightly outside of time, and the pleasant, trancelike state it induces, its aura of unreality, keeps it from attaining the rawness of Sula or Cat’s Eye.
In Cat’s Eye—framed as the recollections of a middle-aged painter who has returned to Toronto for a retrospective of her work—the narrator, Elaine, broods over her relationship to Cordelia, now vanished. (The best friends in these novels die or disappear at an alarming rate.) Having spent the first eight years of her life being carted all over backwoods Canada with her mother, her brother, and her entomologist father, living in tents and uninsulated “housekeeping” cottages, Elaine knows nothing of the genteel world of egg cups and twin sets. When her family finally settles down and sends her to school, three friends, led by the manipulative Cordelia, initiate her into the sanctum. “I see that there’s a whole world of girls and their doings that has been unknown to me,” Elaine remembers of this time, “and that I can be a part of it without making any effort at all.” Instead of striving to keep up with her adventurous brother, she can make scrap books of domestic scenes by cutting images and products out of mail-order catalogs:
“Oh, yours is so good. Mine’s no good. Mine’s awful.” They say this every time we play the scrapbook game. Their voices are wheedling and false; I can tell they don’t mean it. … But it’s the thing you have to say, so I begin to say it too. … All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying pans out of the Eaton’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say I’ve done it badly. Partly this is a relief.
Before sexual rivalry and diverging social circles arrive to drive best friends apart, there is the insincerity—the self-deprecation, the pretense of a serene disinterest in competition, the performance of concern for others—that seems the very essence of traditional femininity. Is it even possible, novels of female friendship often ask, to be friends with a person who can no longer be herself? It’s Cassie’s increasing artificiality, more than anything else, that nudges loyal Julia toward hating her “a little.” When Julia finds out that Cassie’s new stepfather is making her home life miserable, she invites her old friend to stay with her own family. But all she receives in reply is Cassie’s patronizing “masked self,” like an actress in a “teen psychodrama” who assures her this wouldn’t be a good idea and “even put her hand on my forearm, as if the director of the TV episode had suggested the gesture, that it would demonstrate the right combination of condescension and fakery.”
The antidote to all this dissembling would seem to be feminism and self-awareness, two qualities the central characters of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends believe they possess in spades. Frances and Bobbi are college students in Dublin, friends from childhood but also ex-lovers who perform together at spoken-word events around town. Melissa, a photographer and essayist in her 30s, takes them up, although she is far more enchanted with the pretty, charismatic Bobbi. Frances, the novel’s narrator, drifts into a secret affair with Melissa’s husband, a handsome actor named Nick. She conceals the affair from Bobbi, just as she has long concealed the slow disintegration of her alcoholic father and her own outbreaks of self-harm.
Ferrante brought something new to the female friendship novel by giving it the stature of an epic; Elena and Lila’s bond spans decades, and the Neapolitan novels encompass both intimate domestic contretemps and a period of social and political upheaval in Italy. Conversations With Friends, on the other hand, slips in slyly by a side door, its categories askew or in flux. Is it a love story about Frances and Bobbi (or Frances and Nick)? Is it an adultery novel? Is it a comedy of manners? Rooney, who reportedly wrote the novel in three months, doesn’t seem to feel that she needs to make up her mind about that, just as her characters believe they have kicked off the categories that restrained generations before theirs. They can be ambisexual, nonmonogamous—even, as Frances claims to be, largely unemotional. (Although Bobbi scoffs at this, insisting that she might as well claim “not to have thoughts.”)
At times, Conversations With Friends reads like a satire, its characters prattling on about love as a “discursive practice,” reading books about “postcolonial reason,” and calling themselves communitarian anarchists while living what are, after all, fairly routine bourgeois lives. They are forever describing and summarizing each other’s personalities, their conversations bleeding from real life into texts and instant messages and then back again, a never-ending chatter in which very little that really matters ever gets said, despite all the seeming candor and self-analysis. The novel is a masterful portrayal of the formlessness of that period in contemporary middle-class life when schooling is over, or nearly over, but adult life hasn’t really begun.
Yet Conversations With Friends is primarily a novel about female friendship, and that friendship fractures along an ancient divide. Frances describes Bobbi as “the love of my life” and “a mystery so total I couldn’t endure her, a force I couldn’t subjugate with my will.” But from the moment she begins her affair with Nick it’s clear that this is her very first experience of sexual passion. She seems to have drifted into the affair the same way she drifted into her relationship with Bobbi, only to run up against that startling revelation of her own desire. The idea that she ever tried to subjugate Bobbi to her will is hilarious, since Frances has no discernible will to speak of until she hooks up with Nick. Even the short story she writes in an abrupt departure from her usual form, poetry, seems to happen by accident: “I didn’t plan to write a story, I just noticed after some time that I wasn’t hitting the return key and that the lines were forming full sentences and attaching to each other like prose.” She is a stranger to herself. “At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterward think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.” She has cobbled together a persona that impresses other people, mostly by remaining silent or speaking in enigmatic irony. “You say cryptic things I don’t understand,” Nick remarks. “I give inadequate responses, you laugh at me, and then we have sex.” Frances, unlike so many of the narrators of the novel of female friendship, is the one just about to get away, the best friend that Bobbi seems destined to lose.
In The Hot One, her recent memoir about the murder of the woman who had been her best friend in childhood, Carolyn Murnick writes that in fifth grade she felt that she and her friend were virtually the same person. Her guilt over her friend’s death is tangled up with an almost magical belief that, in growing up, this single entity divided into “the smart one” and “the hot one.” By assuming the smart-one role, Murnick worries, she somehow helped to relegate her friend to being valued only for her looks. This notion is completely irrational, yet every woman who has ever had a close friend will recognize the strange, subterranean pull of its logic: To be together, we must be the same; to differ is to separate. Yet even in the act of separating, we define each other, two halves of what was once whole. Or was it?
In its elegiac mode—and The Burning Girl is an excellent example of this—the novel of female friendship laments an intimacy of breathtaking perfection, never to be attained again with anyone else, male or female. But how often is the closeness it mourns an illusion fostered by the protean nature of youth itself? And how tragic is the casting off of that illusion when the time comes at last to grow up? It’s easy for Bobbi and Frances to be inseparable as long as the bloblike, accommodating, and reflexively secretive Frances molds her life around Bobbi’s. Frances’ affair with Nick is a poor life choice, a stupid thing to do, a mess. But it is a mess of her own making, not a role imposed on her by society or the lecherous designs of men or Bobbi’s ideas about how best to subvert the patriarchy. The end of Conversations With Friends isn’t romantic, but it is oddly hopeful. Frances may be on the verge of becoming lost by her best friend, but she is also on the brink of finding herself.
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud. W.W. Norton.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. Hogarth.