A very important holiday is coming up. No, not that one. Galentine’s Day! It’s a very-unofficial day that a few of us set aside to celebrate the ladies in our lives, our best friends and confidants. In the spirit of this almost-no-one’s-even-ever-heard-of-it holiday, I’ve put together a list of twenty amazing books about female friendship, testaments one and all to the kindred spirits who are there for each other through thick and thin.
Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison wrote some of the most beautiful and complex books about female friendships in all of American literature. Sula is one of the stand-outs, a story about two childhood friends whose lives veer in very different directions. They are attached at the hip in childhood, despite their differences, and their bond grows only closer when they experience a significant trauma. When one of them decides to marry, their bond is nearly broken. The titular character decides to live a life of fierce independence, refusing social conventions and formalities, to the chagrin of their neighbours in The Bottom. This intricate and intimate story of female friendship has become one of the Black feminist classics of the 20th century.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
I went back-and-forth about whether to include The Color Purple in this list of books about female friendship, because of the romantic nature of Celie and Shug’s relationship. Too many fabulous queer relationships have been written out of history under the guise of “close friendship”. But it felt wrong not to include it, too. This book is chock-full of strong female friendships that fuel women to overcome the constraints of their race, class, and gender to pursue true happiness. The women in Celie’s life are a salve to the wounds inflicted by men and their violence, as Celie herself is a salve to the wounds inflicted on the women she loves. So, despite its traumatic content, it’s actually quite an uplifting read. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
All of Sally Rooney’s books (so far) deal with human relationships – especially female friendships. Maybe Beautiful World, Where Are You? would be better suited to a list of books about female friendships, but I can’t attest to that because I haven’t read it (and, honestly, I don’t really intend to). Conversations With Friends, however, portrays a uniquely fascinating type of female friendship, that between ex-girlfriends who live and work together. Frances and Bobbi find themselves entangled in another relationship, that of married couple Melissa and Nick, and the bonds of their friendship are tested by the power dynamics of their respective lustful intrigues. Read my full review of Conversations With Friends here.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other features all kinds of relationships – including many female friendships. Through a series of “episodes” focusing on each of the characters in turn, the value and power of these friendships is revealed over the course of the novel. Of course, the web of connections is a little complex: Dominique is friends with Amma, who is friends with Shirley, who is friends with Penelope, and so on. Still, a reader paying close attention shouldn’t have much trouble following this story of women across age, race, class, and social divides. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.
Everyone comes to Jane Eyre for the love affair between the titular character and the dastardly Mr Rochester. That’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as one of the classic books about female friendship. Jane’s best friend in the first volume, Helen Burns, is a fellow student at the awful Lowood School. They are each other’s closest confidants, and Helen inspires and uplifts Jane despite their terrible circumstances. But here’s the real clanger: their relationship is nipped in the bud by Helen’s tragic young death – which, according to Elizabeth Gaskell, was an exact rendition of what happened to Charlotte Brontë’s elder sister, Maria. Charlotte wrote this sub-plot into her most famous novel to draw attention to the atrocious practices of such “schools”. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
One of the most iconic books about female friendship is actually a series, a quartet, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. Elena Ferrante crafted a multi-volume epic around a friendship between two disadvantaged girls from Naples (no small feat given the historical bias in literary publishing against “women’s stories”, and that Ferrante is a pseudonym for an author who refuses to do any publicity for her work). Following Elena and Lila’s lifelong friendship allows Ferrante to explore burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, betrayal, revenge, maternity, familial obligation… and, believe it or not, even more. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller
If you’re looking for books about female friendship that are slightly twisted and pretty dark, you need to read Notes On A Scandal. This is a criminally underrated book, despite having been made into a fantastic film staring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. The story is narrated by Barbara, a veteran teacher at a London comprehensive school, and a lonely spinster in her spare time. She has trouble making friends, so she’s delighted by the arrival of the new art teacher, Sheba Hart. She thinks they’re going to be BFFs, even though Sheba barely seems to notice Barbara exists. Then Sheba makes some questionable choices (to say the least), and her quasi-stalker Barbara might end up being the only person in her corner. Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. Under Miss Brodie’s mentorship, these six girls learn all about world travels, love, and fascism. Over the course of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, they develop a close bond, with their teacher as well as with each other. But as they grow older and their lives become more complicated, one of them will betray their leader – and, in so doing, betray them all. Will Miss Jean Brodie, passing her prime, find the Judas in her disciples? Read my full review of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie here.
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
She Came To Stay was renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, published in 1943. It’s a fictional account of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). This will hardly come as a shock, but it turns out de Beauvoir had some hard feelings about the 17-year-old who “came between” her and Sartre, the love of her life, and in many ways this novel is her act of revenge. The ‘romance’ between Francoise and Xaviere is barely more than a thinly disguised frenemieship, which is why I’ve chosen to include it in this list of books about female friendship – because what could be more emblematic of these relationships and their complexity? Read my full review of She Came To Stay here.
The Swans Of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Even though The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is “about” Truman Capote, the real stars of the show are his “Swans”, the ladies-who-lunch in New York’s upper-upper echelons. In Melanie Benjamin’s telling, Capote infiltrates their friendship group, reveling in being the center of attention and a nexus for gossip and spite. Then, as in real life, he betrays the women who have befriended him by using their real lives as fodder for his “fiction”. It’s an act of desperation for a self-conscious writer aging out of relevance, and it has terrible ramifications for the women who look like they “have it all”. This is one of the best books about female friendship for people who like their novels heavy on the sparkle and scandal. Read my full review of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue here.
The Competition by Katherine Collette
Not all books about female friendship are heartwarming tales of bonds stretching back to childhood. In The Competition, the female “friendship” driving the main character is one that dissolved years ago, due to her own wrongdoing. Lacking any real direction in life, Frances is drawn into SpeechMakers (an organisation very clearly based on the real-life Toastmakers), and hopes to win the $40,000 cash prize on offer for their annual convention competition. When she arrives, however, she spots this former-friend-now-foe from her past, and her nerves of steel are tested. Read my full review of The Competition here.
From Where I Fell by Susan Johnson
Have you ever accidentally sent an email to the wrong address? Surely it’s happened to us all at one time or another. Most of us receive an automatic reply indicating that the misspelled address doesn’t exist… but what if our missive actually landed in a stranger’s inbox? What if they replied? That’s the premise of Susan Johnson’s modern twist on the epistolary novel, From Where I Fell (based on her real-life experience of the same!). It makes for a fascinating take on female friendship, the voyeuristic thrill of reading email exchanges paired with the strange circumstances and the masterfully drawn characters (heart-on-her-sleeve Pamela, and no-bullshit Chris). Read my full review of From Where I Fell here.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
The Weekend isn’t just one of the best books about female friendship I’ve had the pleasure of reading: it’s one of the best books about older female friendship. Too often in literature, older women are depicted as creatures of pity, caricatures that live lonely lives filled with little more than cats and embroidery – maybe a grandchild, if they’re lucky. That’s not the case in Charlotte Wood’s story of old friends who must gather at a beach house, to clear the estate of a dear departed friend. While they’re at it, secrets make their way to the surface, and old wounds are broken open. Read my full review of The Weekend here.
You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken
You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here explores the intricacies and intimacies of intense female friendship against the backdrop of the Emerald Isle in the ’90s. Macken nails the traditional Irish blend of humour and horror, in short, sharp chapters that keep the story moving quickly. As a narrator, Katie is intriguing, and full of astute insights. If you’re looking for a shorter version of My Brilliant Friend that’s closer to the Netflix series Derry Girls, I can’t imagine any books about female friendship more perfect than this one. Read my full review of You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whittaker
Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo. They’ve worked together and lived together for most of their twenties, and they’re taking the male-dominated field of animation by storm. They’re on the cusp of making it big with their first full-length feature, a film about Mel’s difficult childhood, but their friendship starts to crack under the pressure. When Sharon visits her home state of Kentucky, a former friend comes out of the woodwork, and everything that holds Mel and Sharon together is torn apart. The Animators is one of the most insightful books about female friendship for millennial women out there.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
There are no friendships more intense or more chilling than those shared between teenage girls. The main character in Cat’s Eye has left those days behind, but when she returns to her home city of Toronto she finds herself reliving all the petty politics and torment of her youth. Elaine had an unusual childhood, travelling extensively with her entomologist father, which made her exotic and cool in the eyes of Carol and Grace when they finally settled down. But the introduction of Cordelia into the friendship group changed the dynamic, and Elaine found herself no longer fitting in as well as she once did with her “best friends”. Be warned: this is one of the books about female friendship that will have you reliving your own adolescent relationships, too.
The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
It’s unusual to see books about female friendship written accurately – let alone well – by men, but Grady Hendrix is uniquely talented. In The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires, he absolutely nails it. This best-selling horror-comedy novel is billed as “Steel Magnolias meets Dracula”. The story revolves around a women’s book club in a small Southern town, and their quest to protect their families from a mysterious newcomer they believe to be a vampire. You’ll devour this book in a single sitting, even if you’re usually a horror-novel wimp.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Picture 1960s California: is it all hippie haircuts, free love, and beautiful beaches? The Girls paints a different picture, one based on the real life and crimes of the Manson Family. But rather than focusing on the diabolical leader, Emma Cline zooms in on the female friendships that were forged under his spell. 14-year-old Evie was easy fodder for a cult family, isolated and naive. She found the group of teenage girls at Edgewater Road intoxicating, and she was quickly drawn in to their circle. Sure, she had to worship their leader along with the rest of them, but it was her relationships with the girls that changed her life forever.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
The gap between childhood in adolescence is particularly pronounced for girls. An age difference of just a year or two can feel like a gaping chasm separating interests and perspective. One of the few books about female friendships that addresses this strange time for young women is This One Summer, a graphic novel written and illustrated by cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. This is “a story of renewal and revelation”, set at a summer beach-house on a family vacation. Rose and Windy seek to escape problems at home by immersing themselves in the lives of local teens, but what they find could be more disturbing and dangerous than they realise.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
One of the great chroniclers of the lives of women, Jane Austen, is brought into the contemporary world in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club. Over the course of six months, six people get together to discuss each of Austen’s major works, and how her themes and motifs echo throughout their own lives. It’s a beautiful way of examining the timeless quality of Austen’s writing, and how beautifully her accounts of relationships and turmoil parallel our own lived experiences of the same. Plus, what better setting for books about female friendship than a book club? Bookworms are sure to delight in this witty, insightful novel from Fowler.
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