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Ah, friendship. The twists, the turns…the long-lasting bonds and the occasional betrayals. With such rich material to mine, it’s no wonder that many novelists have turned to this theme in their writing, but it’s the rare author who can give the subject matter the true finesse it deserves. Rufi Thorpe is one of those exceptions, and she depicts the complexities and nuances of friendship so deftly in her novel The Girls from Corona del Mar that we couldn’t resist asking about her inspiration. The result was this intriguing list of her top ten books about female friendship; it runs the gamut from classics to contemporary masters, but don’t be surprised if you end up wanting to read every one.
1. Sula by Toni Morrison
When has a book been so honest and full of blood? I first read Sula when I was fifteen, and in many ways it spoiled me for the rest of literature.
Sula and Nel, the book’s two main protagonists, are girlhood friends bound together by their accidental murder of a boy, Chicken Little. Morrison’s treatment is masterfully untidy and the novel asks questions about good and evil, community and identity, in a way that makes it hard to breathe normally while you are reading it.
2. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner
Jennifer Weiner is one of those writers who is almost constantly underestimated. Even the title, Best Friends Forever, seems to promise something saccharine and easily digestible, but what you find instead is a kind of fever dream.
Weiner has a gift for detail and characterization that is really remarkable, and there are scenes from Valerie and Addie’s childhood together that I cannot discharge from my mind.
3. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto’s books are as intoxicating and creepy as any Grimm’s fairy tale, and Goodbye Tsugumi is haunting, addictively readable, and absolutely unforgettable.
This time, the best friends are two cousins, one of whom is an invalid, the titular Tsugumi, who is by turns spoiled, charismatic, and cruel. Her cousin, Maria, grows up in her shadow in a dreamy, isolated beach town, but then leaves for Tokyo where her real life seems finally about to begin. The bulk of the story describes her return home for one final summer by the sea, and the plot, which involves the kidnapping of a Pomeranian and a plan for revenge, is so bizarre and dreamlike that you wouldn’t believe me if I told it to you.
4. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Truth and Beauty is Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, author of the famous memoir Autobiography of a Face. Patchett tells the story of their seventeen-year friendship with a spareness and simplicity that is simply scorching. A must-read.
5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend follows two girls, Elena and Lila, from age six through their teenage years in a suburb of Naples in the 1950s, though the book begins in the present day with the sudden disappearance of Lila, who at the age of sixty-six has decided to try to disappear, to vanish without a trace, even going so far as to cut herself out of all her family pictures before leaving.
6. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
I first read The Golden Notebook when I was in college, and I loved it, intrigued by the structure of those compartmentalized notebooks, the struggle to bring one’s life together into a unified whole. I loved best the sections called Free Women, describing the day-to-day lives of Anna and Molly.
But when I read it again, just last year, I felt dazed by its vividness and ferocity; the sections exploring motherhood really hit home in a way they simply couldn’t have before.
7. The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer
The constant delight of this book is that it never seems to be going where you think it is going. And I love the friendship between Carrie, the protagonist, and her best friend, Jamie.
So much of female friendship, the quick, stabbing pain of it, is in the way we judge each other, and Jamie provides that function for Carrie, a moral mirror who is at times accurate, and at other times mistaken, as Carrie struggles to find a way to live her own life after her high school sweetheart suffers a severe spinal injury.
8. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
A sort of carnival of subtext is created whenever three or more women sit together in a room, and that blinking, glaring, but utterly silent storyline is what Karen Joy Fowler manages to capture here.
Five women and one man start a book club to discuss the novels of Jane Austen, and in the process reflect on their own lives, both personal histories and current dilemmas. Really, what could be a more boring premise for a novel? And yet, there is a rippling sense of danger throughout every page because Fowler cuts so close to the bone.
9. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Interestings is another novel exploring a group friendship, this time among six teenagers who meet at a summer camp for the arts and remain close as they struggle to become artists in adult life.
I love big books with baggy sections that you can get lost in, and this is one. The kind of book you will wind up explaining to your friend as though the situations happened to actual people you both know.
10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
My mother read out loud to me every night, and when we were reading Little Women for the first time when I was maybe seven or eight, she asked, “Which one is your favorite?”
I told her Beth was my favorite, which she found distressing. When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a saint. My mother became so frustrated that she finally told me that Beth dies. “She does,” she said, “she dies at the end. So you better pick a different girl to root for.”
I made her skip ahead and find the passage and read it to me, and I was horrified that it was true. How could Beth die? What kind of world was this? I sobbed and sobbed, and my mother, guilty and horrified, let me sleep in her bed that night.
It was an anecdote I found so funny and true that I incorporated it into Mia and Lorrie Ann’s story in The Girls from Corona del Mar.
What kind of world is it that a girl like Beth dies? Maybe that’s the question I’ve been trying to answer my whole life.