Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Burning Girl, explores the aftermath of broken friendship. At the start of seventh grade, Cassie Burnes ditches Julia Robinson in favor of boys, alcohol, and drugs. Julia, our narrator, is heartbroken that her longtime best friend is suddenly becoming a stranger. Over the course of the year, Cassie begins to spiral and Julia wonders just where the girl she used to know went. In honor of the book’s publication, Messud put together a list of her favorite books that explore complex female friendships.
Muriel Spark turns her sharp wit and keen eye upon the residents of the May of Teck Club, a residence for single young women at the end of the Second World War. She captures their foibles and passions, their subtlest dynamics, and their buoyant, youthful frivolity. But as with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, another of Spark’s masterpieces about girls and women, there is darkness behind the bright facades, and a strong dose of tragedy in the comedy.
The inimitable Jane Bowles wrote just one novel (in addition to a bunch of short stories and a single play): It’s a brilliant but eccentric double narrative about two women, Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, linked by friendship, but living out their separate stories in different places—a farmhouse on Long Island and what’s supposed to be a holiday in Panama, chiefly—surrounded by unlikely new companions. Bowles, like Muriel Spark, is a tragicomic genius; the novel is an existentialist exploration of what it might mean, for each of these two women, to live authentically, which proves a challenging project.
Sheila Heti’s “novel from life” about the author as a young woman/artist figuring herself out is, like Bowles’ fiction, an existential undertaking. Central to the work and perhaps most memorable in it is the intense friendship between Sheila and her artist friend Margaux: two creative women who love and respect one another, working in different disciplines, honest even in their less appealing attributes, attempting to articulate what their work is and why it matters, as well as their ambitions/pretensions/illusions about that work.
This remains for me one of the most intimately powerful novels about the complications of girls’ friendship and how the dynamics unfold over time. Elaine Risley, an artist, recalls her often painful childhood relationships with Grace, Carol, and the charismatic but venomous Cordelia. Her story will surely strike a chord with many female readers. Margaret Atwood deploys her remarkable ability to evoke the uncanny and the sinister, and the novel is, like Cordelia herself, haunting.
This gripping tetralogy about the lifelong friendship between Lenù and Lila, two working class girls from Naples, by now needs no introduction. Its portrayal of the pain and rivalrous complication of the girls’ intimacy is as affecting as its depiction of their abiding loyalty and love; and Elena Ferrante’s great triumph lies in her ability to weave into the women’s personal stories many of the broader social themes of their times—political, social, philosophical, and literary. If not always an elegant stylist, Ferrante is a remarkable storyteller, and these books are enormously compelling.