In Virginia Woolf’s infamous essay on females and fiction, A Room of One’s Own, one of the most potent points Woolf raises is about is how negatively women’s relationships have been portrayed in literature. Up until the point when she was writing in the 1920s, she argued, fiction was almost exclusively written by men and – as a result – the women depicted were almost exclusively in relation to men too. What’s more, when women were shown to have relationships with other women – aside from when those women were related – these relationships were almost entirely combative, riddled with jealousy, sabotage and betrayal.
Ninety years later, women are writing more books than ever but how much has this shift changed the way that female relationships are portrayed? It would be easy to argue, not that much! More often than not, even those friendships which begin fondly still turn sour. The Girls by Emma Cline, Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman and Dare Me by Megan Abbott are a few recent hits where women are at odds. Whilst competition and back-stabbing makes for great drama, we all know that this doesn’t fully reflect the female experience in real life. So to balance the scales, we’ve picked five of the most fabulously awesome and supportive female friendships that literature has to offer…
Beaches by Iris Rainer Dart
Cee Cee Bloom is a loudmouthed, spunky 10-year-old from the Bronx with dreams of being a Hollywood actress. Bertie White is a timid 7-year-old from Pittsburgh who wants to be a mother. They meet by chance in Atlantic City and promise write. What follows is a friendship that spans thirty years; one that starts with simple letters between children but becomes an extraordinary, life-long bond. They reunite over the years – always at the ocean – their friendship weathering love affairs, jealousy, missed opportunities, crushing disappointment, loneliness and perceived betrayals, in bursts of emotion they’ve had nothing to do with but repress in their times apart. This is an energetic, warm and funny novel that will leave you reaching for the tissues.
Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea
Girls of Riyadh is an exposé of the life and loves of four privileged twentysomething women, looking for happiness in Riyadh. It is often described as the Saudi version of Sex and The City, in which designer handbags and nose-jobs are converted like diamonds but interactions with men are much harder to engineer. It was banned in Saudi Arabia when it was published in 2005 so – of course – then became an international bestseller, but it actually gives politics a wide berth, focusing instead on how women here fall swiftly and madly in and out of love just like women everywhere else. Written as a series of emails between the women, it is a sharp-tongued, sassy and subversive story about friendship, love, lust and hypocrisy, in a society where repression feeds rather than suppresses desire.
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks
First published in the 1960s, The Girls of Slender Means is a small novel but a firecracker, slight enough to be read in one sitting but that stands strong against the winds of time. It follows a group of young, single women living in together in post-war London, working as secretaries and clerks, bickering over dresses and suitors, and trying to pretend the war never happened. Sparks writes with piercing wit but the darkness of her subject matter is never far away. The women are impulsive, fearless and bewildered in that way that only comes with youth, but each is struggling to hide secrets far greater than their years. This is a book about the end of innocence, and – with new awareness of the world and themselves – how the dynamics of friendship and its value change.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
In 1949, four Chinese women who had recently immigrated to San Francisco start The Joy Luck Club to eat dim sum and play mah-jong. Forty years later, their meetings have become more than just an opportunity to giggle and gossip. The women are still outsiders in America, clinging to fading memories of their homeland and uncertain in their search for a new cultural identity. The novel’s structure cleverly emulates a mag-jong game, with four parts and sixteen interlinking chapters that reveal the women’s individual tragedies and their fraught relationships with their westernized daughters as they grapple to reconcile the present with the past. Written with tenderness, empathy and straightforward prose, this is a novel about overcoming the enormity of change in your life, and of raising friends up.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Mariam and Laila – two Afghani women married to the same vile husband – ought to be enemies. Mariam is twenty years Laila’s senior, bitter in her childlessness and subject to constant physical and emotional abuse from overbearing Rasheed. Laila is privileged by comparison, young, smart and fertile as she is. Yet from where their relationship begins as confrontational, it evolves into an inspirational, fiercely protective friendship, where connection is found in shared terrors and decimated aspirations, where they face their captor together and which ultimately saves their lives. This is a beautiful, brutal tale of fear, loss and what it means to be family – and the heroism that the deepest friendship can inspire.