Books like Harriet the Spy and Are You There God? helped me figure out how to have girlfriends when I was in middle school. It’s Me, Margaret (Judy Blume) is what I turned to for comfort. I was surprised to find that reading them helped me figure out how to deal with my friendships. Forever by Paula Danziger and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger were two of the first books I read when I was younger. Then I read more classics like The Color Purple, Sula, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Joy Luck Club and Love Medicine were two of my favorite movies. As time went on, my desire for literature that would show me how I felt about myself and my female friendships never changed.
In my book, Girl Talk: What Science Can Tell Us About Female Friendship, I talk about what science can tell us about female friendship. It was important to me because I was a journalist to understand why some of my friends did things that were strange or mysterious, while other friends were always supportive and kind.
After writing this book, I came to the conclusion that in some ways, reading books about female friendship has taught me as much as writing this book.
There were two books that helped me understand what made the mean girls in my adolescence so bad: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, both by Claire Messud. One of the best books about girls’ competitiveness is Swing Time by Zadie Smith. During my time reading The Color Purple, I learned how rivalry and love can build a long-term friendship between two friends.
In these books, I was able to feel like I had a say in what happened to someone else. In order to close the books and make them go away, I could do this.
We like to think about ourselves in the stories that we read. Can make us feel like we’re not alone in having these things happen to us when we read novels about other people who have had the same things happen to them. They can also make us less alone.
Since Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela in 1739, people have used fiction to better understand themselves by looking at the world through someone else’s eyes.
Though there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, it’s becoming easier for readers from different backgrounds to find stories that show them in a way that makes sense to them. Now, they can read books by Zadie Smith, Min Jin Lee, and Wayétu Moore and see how they connect to their lives and their friends, too.
Here are some of my favorite books about female friendship:
The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud
Julia and Cassie have been best friends since they were little and have been best friends ever since. This is a semi-gothic book about their friendship. Julia was quiet and sensitive, and Cassie was the one who was always getting into trouble. Julia and Cassie’s friendship starts to fall apart when Cassie’s mother’s new boyfriend moves into the house her mother used to live in. Cassie starts running with a group of people who aren’t very clean. This makes their class differences more clear. There are some things Julie wonders about their relationship: “Maybe I made her feel like she was stuck with me, like she’d grown out of me.” Her new character didn’t want to be reminded that it wasn’t real. It was like I knew her too well.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
Two women in Afghanistan, Mariam and Laila, are married to the same cruel and violent man. They both live in the same house. Mariam doesn’t like Laila at first when she moves in with her and Rasheed. Then she comes to love her and they become best friends. She becomes a second mother to Laila’s daughter, and they protect each other from their abusive husband. When Laila decides to run away, Mariam agrees to go with her. They have a lot in common with the story of Ruth and Naomi from the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. The main point is that two women, one older and one younger, are loyal and willing to sacrifice for each other.
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
Two childhood friends want to be dancers, but only one has the real ability to do it. At dance class, the narrator, who isn’t named, meets Tracey: “There were a lot of other girls there, but for obvious reasons we noticed each other.” It looked as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make both of us. Our freckles gathered in the same places, and we were both about the same height. They have a close friendship, but it ends when they are in their twenties because it is hard. However, even though they don’t see each other for a long time, when they see each other, old feelings of love mixed with jealousy come back.
Sula, by Toni Morrison
Morrison wrote about two black women who have to deal with both sexism and racism, but also with the harm they can do to each other. She wanted to show how much these women could hurt each other. When the book came out, it set a new standard by showing the darker side of these relationships between women. Many more black writers used friendship between women after Sula, and this helped them tell their stories.
Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood
As a painter looks back on her childhood and teenage years in Atwood’s 1988 book Cat’s Eye, she talks about a trio of girls who first befriended and then bullied her. It’s a friendship that the narrator doesn’t understand and is angry about. Atwood was criticized when the book came out for how she made girls and women treat their friends in a bad way, instead of how feminists thought that women should act. It was thought to be politically incorrect to say that girls’ friendships had this kind of dimension. Today, that kind of “mean girl” behavior is shown all over the place.
The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, by Carolyn Murnick
This memoir from 2017 shows that friendship breakups can happen in real life, too, like in the book. In the book, the author talks about how her best friend from childhood, Ashley, died. When the girls were young, they both felt like outsiders. When they went to different high schools, they became more and more different. Ashley started hanging out with the fast people. She was the hottest girl; she was sexually early and popular. Her first job was as a stripper at a club in Los Angeles. Carolyn went to college there. Carolyn is shocked to learn that Ashley had been stabbed to death when she was 22 years old, a few years after they first met. Her friend died, and she wants to know what happened and who killed her. She goes to LA to find out more.
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
During this page-turning book about four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family who live in Japan, the women are the ones who stand out because of their strength and courage. Teenagers in the early 1900s fall in love with a rich stranger. When she gets pregnant, she doesn’t want to live as his servant and instead marries a minister who is on his way to Japan. As a result of her decision to leave home, generations of her family will have to deal with love, sacrifice, and hardship for a long time to come.
In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez
This book, which is about three revolutionary sisters who are killed by a ruthless dictator, is based on real people. In the Dominican Republic for 31 years, Rafel Trujillo was a brutal leader. The Mirabal sisters stood up to him, and they died for what they thought was the right thing to do. That’s how this 1994 book makes the women come to life. It shows them in their diaries and letters as well as in their secrets.