Erica Ferencik is an American novelist whose latest survival thriller The River at Night explores the friendship between four women. She talks us through her ten favourite novels tracking that thin line between "BFF" and "mortal enemy".
For me, the stakes in female friendship—and I can only speak as a straight woman here—are just as high or higher than in romantic ones. We trust our women friends with so much intimate knowledge—why is that? Why do I still share things with my female friends that I don’t with my husband of 22 years?
Why is it that romantic relationships can end in flames, and yes, some very, very bad days—but ultimately the pain doesn’t linger like the loss of a dear female friend?
These are some of the questions I explore in my new novel, The River at Night—a survival thriller about four women friends who fight to survive the aftermath of a white water rafting accident in the Maine wilderness.
I thought, "why not plunder the minefield of female friendship, toss in the maelstrom of an ill-advised white water rafting trip, and set the story in the Allagash Territory of Northern Maine, smack in the middle of 5,000 square miles of unnamed lakes, forests, and rivers?"
How would relationships devolve? What long-held grudges would explode to the surface? And finally, how would these women survive each other, much less an uncaring wilderness?
Below are ten novels—out of hundreds!—that explore the agony and ecstasy of female friendship: a force equally likely to raise you up as tear you down.
The Girls focuses on the female members of a "Manson-like" cult—a feral crew of brainwashed teens—and how they are seen through the eyes of Evie, a lonely, vulnerable teenage girl who is trying to figure out who she is—in the process doing just about anything for acceptance and recognition.
Cline captures beautifully the anguish of the time of life when you would do anything for acceptance in a group, when you can’t imagine a higher achievement than that. I wanted to sit down with the protagonist and tell her this too will change, just hug it out until she believed me.
A fiercely sad and intelligent book, Cat’s Eye is the story of avant-garde painter Elaine Risley who reflects on her tumultuous childhood on her return to her hometown of Toronto for her retrospective art exhibit. Through the course of the book, Elaine is slowly facing and remembering the harrowing cruelty she experienced at the hands of her “friend,” Cordelia—a journey made extra sad by the fact that all Elaine ever really wanted was a best girlfriend.
Subplots such as her relationship to her brother, her former and current husbands, and her art flesh out this exquisitely written book.
In this heartbreaking, hilarious, and ultimately moving masterpiece, six girls known as “The Brodie set” grow and change under the tutelage of spinster and teacher Miss Jean Brodie in Edinborough in the 1930s. The themes of betrayal, fitting in, sex and adultery, the power of art, and the vicissitudes of friendship are woven through this story.
Miss Brodie begins as an object of worship and fascination by her students, who she calls the crème de la crème, but as the years pass, the betrayals build, and the cloaks and veils fall away revealing the humanity in their object of worship and in themselves as they began to age as well.
An achingly sad but brilliant novel that merges musings on middle-aged emptiness with a coming-of-age tale. Berie, a photography curator at her local historical society, visits Paris with her medical-researcher husband. Their marriage is emotionally vacuous: as Berie notes, on the second page of the book, "The affectionate farce I make of him ignores the ways I feel his lack of love for me."
This grown-up ennui leads Berie to reminisce about the exceptionally close and lively friendship she had as a teenager with Sils, the local beauty in the small town on the Canadian border where they live. Much of the book tells the story of the summer when Sils and Berie worked at a local amusement park: Sils entertaining park guests as Cinderella and Berie selling tickets, and of the results of Berie's stealing money to help Sils when she becomes pregnant.
Two women, completely different in background, personality and social class, are brought together by a shared fascination with the philosophical movement founded by the late Ayn Rand. Justine is a chic journalist while Dorothy is an obese, nocturnal word processor who answers Justine's advertisement in the Manhattan Thing to be interviewed.
As the two women come to know each other, their dismal life experiences gradually emerge; both were molested as children. Where both women have unresolved conflicts from their past, their acquaintanceship, while mistrustful at first, is their first stepping stone to personal redemption.
A stunning exploration of the invisible woman, the slightly older one who does her smiling and her job and her day-to-day activities, then disappears into her apartment…but the truth is, she—Nora—is pissed off. Very pissed off. And she has a friend, who is actually a fun-mirror sort of friend because she has everything Nora doesn't: a happy marriage, children, a successful career as an artist.
But the “joke” is on Nora: she is blind about using and being used…until the stunning finish of this absolute masterpiece. This book is about love and longing and the extent to which we delude ourselves in our efforts to rationalise relationships that are asymmetrical in prestige, social standing, and commitment. A page-turner which catapults the reader to a conclusion that is unexpected, disturbing and authentic.
When Ellie's cancer exhausts the reaches of modern medicine, she travels to Ecuador with Tess and Joline, her lifelong women friends, hoping that the local shamans might offer a miracle. During a tumultuous week marked by bizarre, ancient ceremonies and a betrayal that strains their bond, each woman discovers her own deep need for healing, including the skeptic among them.
Fill the Sky is a powerful novel about the complexity of friendship, the power of the spirit, and the quest to not simply fight death, but to shape an authentic life.
Friendship can be a b***h, especially in Ruth Ware’s world of women friends with long memories and slow burn revenge plans. Four women and one man go on a hen—a bachelorette shower—out in the middle of nowhere, staying in a glass house that seems to reflect their own terrors as well as expose them to unknown villains lurking in the shadowy woods.
But the real heebie-jeebies (for me, anyway) come from a profound examination of how friendships change and morph over time, and the slow reveal of how these changing agendas result in one bloody weekend.
In Ann Hood’s gorgeously written and moving novel, The Knitting Circle, Mary Baxter’s friends do nothing less than save her life. After the sudden loss of five-year-old Stella to meningitis, Mary walks about in a state of devastation, barely able to function, until her mother suggests she join a knitting group, even though Mary swears she has no interest in any of it.
But she finally joins "Big Alice’s Sit and Knit", and settles in with rest of the gang of knitters: Scarlet, Lulu, Ellen, Beth, and Harriet. At first, Mary is reluctant to share her story, but as each woman teaches her their signature knitting techniques, they also share their own personal stories of love, loss, hope and recovery, forming a strong bond of healing and friendship that helps Mary start living her life again.
Prim and proper Rose, a police precinct typist in Prohibition-era New York, considers herself a keen judge of character. After all, she’s recorded countless odious confessions and transgressions at a hundred words a minute. But when Rose meets Odalie Lazare, the stunning, sophisticated, fashionable new typist, she happily plunges into Odalie’s world filled with speakeasies, bootleggers, and elite estate parties.
But there’s something sinister about Odalie, something just a little bit off. The novel focuses on obsession, the shifting nature of identity and the truth, love and temptation, false friendship, and how the influence of others can make us break our own boundaries and codes.
17 Essential works of fiction for January
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