Feeding the lake

On friendship


"Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now," writes in a beautiful essay on friendship for the Paris Review. "The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give?"

She then goes on to explore the friendship between writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. You can read the full essay here.

Considering how important friendships have been in my own life and in the lives around me, I find it baffling that the joys, sorrows, and complexities of friendship (and for me personally, women's friendships) have not been a central theme in literary and other arts. Yes, the ocassional book or film (and, rarer still, painting or song)...but the numbers are small compared to works dedicated to romance, family dynamics, and personal journeys in which friendships are fleeting or relegated to second tier roles.

Friendship, 2006Yet for many of us, our friends are family; and often, in the early years of adulthood, it's friendship that lasts while romances come and go. Meeting someone with the potential to become a close friend can feel almost as giddy as falling in love; and certainly the end of a friendship can be just as painful as divorce. Sometimes worse.

I'd like your help today in recommending works of art (in all fields) on the subject of friendship. For example, my favorite novel to date on the subject of friendship is Elizabeth Wein's brilliant Code Name Verity, a gorgeously written and harrowing story about the friendship between two young female pilots in World War II. To me, this book captures the absolutely intensity of the bond between best friends. My favorite memoir on the the subject is Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain (author of the better-known World War I era memoir Testament of Youth). This beautiful book is about Brittain's deep relationship with fellow writer, feminist, and politcal activist Winifred Holtby. (Close runners-up would be A World of Light by May Sarton, a fascinating book in which the author looks at the friendships that formed her world from her mid-twenties to her mid-forties; and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, about her complicated, rather difficult friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy.) My favorite biographical work about friendship is The Red Rose Girls by Alice Carter, about the artists Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley.

And you? What do you recommend on the theme of "friendship," in any form of art?

Ellen Kushner, Terri Windling, and TillyGood friendships aging like good wine: The photographs above, from top to bottom, are of me and my dear friend Ellen Kushner back in the 1980s (photographed by Beth Gwinn); Ellen and me again in 2006 (photographed by Nina Kiriki Hoffman); and the two of us here in Chagford, where she's been visiting this week along with another beloved old friend, Delia Sherman (Ellen's wife), and my new friend Kathleen Jennings. (The third photo was taken by Delia.)


I know this may seem an odd one but the books that spring to mind are Pettson and Findus by Sven Nordqvist. When Findus was small and got lost was my son's favourite book. It tells the story of how important companionship and caring for another being is essential to our own well being.

My eldest son finds friendships very hard (I am sure I have mentioned he has Asperger's). Yet he needs the same things as we all do. I think he found the expression of friendship in Findus and Pettson something he could relate to. His relationship with our own cat is a mirror of this one at times. I suspect that animals are easier to read than humans, they are more honest and do not dissemble or hide their true feelings.

I was thinking of the books (I have read) that chronicle friendships and struggled to identify one that stood out. Middlemarch sprang to mind. This is an essay in misguided friendships, misunderstandings and love. I was thinking of Dorothea's relationship with her sister, who offers support throughout her trials. Lydgate, who finds out who his true friends really are and Fred Vincy, who ill serves the best friend he has. Eliot explores the human frailties that often strain our friendships yet shows that they can survive despite ourselves.

The other essay into friendship that I love is Harold and Maude, not typical but a good way of seeing how age is not a barrier. I am off to consider others now. You have really got me thinking this morning.

A surprisingly difficult subject in some ways, Terri. Friends are the family we choose; I have people in my life that I've known for more than forty years, and others for much less time, but the DNA of friendship has a deep significance that transcends so may other ties.

Sorry forgot the art and literature bit. What about Sam and Frodo?

Code Name Verity is simply smashing in every way.

And if that top picture isn't the definition of Sister Light, Sister Dark. . .


Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures is a great book about friendship, the unlikely friendship of two women from different social classes in the early 19th century, brought together by their interest in fossils. I loved it.

Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride is an interesting book about friendships gone wrong.

I'll have a think about others....

Great topic and great photos!

And add me to the list of people gob-smacked by Code Name Verity.


Graham Joyce's "Smoking Poppy" describes a male friendship between two unlikely and somewhat resistant men that evolves under stressful circumstances with honesty and compassion.

you've mentioned two of my favourites: Petterson and Findus, and Harold and Maude.

I had never thought about that before, but you're right: friendship is rarely the central theme in a book, especially between women. Most of the examples that my (admittedly poor-on-the-recall) brain comes up with are incidental rather than central. Some of the other ones that came to mind, were actually relationships between siblings. A different kettle of fish altogether.

One that does stand out for me (probably because shortly after reading it I saw the televised version with the wonderful Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews) is the friendship between Charles and Sebastian in Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited".

Cynthia Rose is right: Margaret Atwood's "The Robber Bride" is a great example of friendships gone wrong. I believe she also deals with this theme in some of her short stories.

In Natalie Goldberg's "Banana Rose." Nell and Anna, their friendship, raw, transcending and simply,loving. When Anna dies, Nell says, "she was my best friend, she was my sister." Those of us who find friends who become sisters of the heart, are forever blessed...

Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Please come flying" is such a joyful longing poem of friendship, even though the friend is yet to arrive. And I loved the step-sisters in Elizabeth Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters" who could so easily have been victim-and-evil-stepsister but instead are friends.

It seems the books I've read where strong friendships are integral to the story focus on male friendship. Some complex, splendid friendships: Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brien's fantastic historical fiction series; Holmes and Watson (as portrayed in Doyle's stories as well as in the fresh take in the BBC "Sherlock" and the American "Elementary" TV series); Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call in McMurtry's Lonesome Dove; and in The Left Hand of Darkness by LeGuin, the cross-planetary friendship between Genly Ai and Estraven (who is actually both genders).

that first photo makes me want to cry. <3

also, I am so proud and touched by your praise here of CNV. It was a joy to write because I put so much of my own friendships into it.

I'm not sure that the visual honesty of that first photo can be beat! So beautiful. I hope you both have a spectacular visit! xo

Elizabeth Wein: Thank you - that first one was our "Goblin Market" photo....I remember trying to look self-consciously Victorian - and Terri going along with me, good egg (and Pre-Raphaelite) that she is...and Beth Gwinn snapping away!

What a shame Tilly couldn't snap one of us together in the wood.

Has anyone considered Toni Morrison's "Sula"--???

Phebe Davidson

The opear La Boheme is really about friendship, with the focus on the four men, Rudolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline, but Mimi and Musetta are also a part of it

There's a lot of friendship in children's books, probably because sex isn't an option. So I'd first suggest The Wind in the Willows., and then Castle Waiting.

In adult literature, there's the friendship between Lucia and Georgie in the Lucia series.
There are some fine friendships between anglican clergy in Susan Howatch's books, but they are mixed in among all kinds of other relationships so I can't say the books are centered on them.

Mary Lasswell's books (High Time, Suds in Your Eye) are fluff, but they're fluff about the friendship among three old women.

You're right, though, it's surprising how little friendship there is on my bookshelf! How about if one of the people is a dragon? Because then Naomi Novick's novels could swell the count...

Just reread Suds In Your Eye...yes, fluff, but as I get older, I am still charmed by the friendship of those zany women.

There are strong female friendships in some of Charles De Lint's work...notably Jilly Coppercorn and Sophie Etoile. Friendship has a lot of power in those worlds.

I will think about others, but why haven't I noticed more. My female friends are such an essential part of my life. One more area where women's lives are unremarked?

One recent book I've loved that's about friendship is The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer - it follows a group of six friends from summer camp into their fifties. It's also about artistic talent, and success (and the difference between them), and the eighties, and envy, and betrayal, and love, and living in New York City, and all kinds of things I love to read and think about.

And of course adding to the chorus of love for the friendship in Code Name Verity!

Elizabeth, Code Name Verity is, quite simply, one of the best books I have ever, ever read. I was stunned by it.

(You were missed last night, by the way. We were all wishing that the timing had worked out that you could have come to our little "women writers" dinner with Ellen, Delia, Katherine Langrish, Kathleen Jennings, and Wendy Froud. Your ears should have been burning because your work was discussed with the highest praise.)

Lots of very, very good recommendations here. Thank you so much, everyone!

"There's a lot of friendship in children's books, probably because sex isn't an option."

A good point. Also books *about* childhood, like Stephen King's novella "The Body" (published in Different Seasons and filmed under the name Stand by Me) -- which is my favorite of King's works.

De Lint is very good on friendship, yes!

So are the various members of the "Scribblies" writers group in Minneapolis (Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, etc). The friendship between Orient and Tick-tock in Emma's Borderland novel, Finder, for example, is a thing of beauty.

And Borderland as a series is all about creating new families through friends.

Gracious, I haven't read this yet -- and I love her work. Off to order it now....

City of Roses by Kip Manley http://thecityofroses.com/contents He writes it in episodes that you can read online, buy in chapbooks or there is an ebook of the first 11 parts. He writes like my brain works. Taking in different bits. Kind of stream of consciousness. Jo and her friend go out after work and see this lady being hassled. They go to offer aid. Jo ends up somehow in a sword fight, which she wins. The lady, Ysabel, turns out to be a fairy princess and by winning, Jo is now her champion. She could have bowed out, but she doesn't. She feels like she needs to do this. So Ysabel is now her responsibility. She takes her home to her crummy apartment and then to work with her at the call center. The fairy princess ends up working the phones. Imagine that. It's a fantastic tale with lots of friendships and relationships and messy life. Read the first bits online and I bet you can't stop.

Another fluffy-but-still good one is Secrets of the Divine Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, about the intersection of friendship and family in one particular slice of Louisiana bayou society. The book may have suffered a bit from being overhyped but it's a very good read. (Just don't watch the film.)

Loved that book.

What a good point!

Yes. I had forgotten how that book moved me.

Hands down, Martha Wells Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy and its precursor, Death of the Necromancer, has the best friendships I've ever read--and rarer, friendship between het men and het women, between a gay man and a heteroflexible man, etc. Basically, situations that in other books would lead to sex and/or romance, but in hers, remain good friendships.

My other pick would be Tim Pratt's Marla Mason series. Rondeau and Marla and B have a fun friendship.

These are my favorites:

Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess. (I love the subtext and see it both ways. But when someone specifically argues their relationship is, "More than a friendship," I am compelled to say, "It is more than a romance."

An odd one, but Sarah and Danny in Witchblade. They are partners at work, but they are also friends and depicted beautifully.

Happy Go Lucky, the Mike Leigh film.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Any biography of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings

Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin-shei. The story centers around women's friendships, people who are chosen family. In fact, I gave copies to my own chosen sisters as gifts.

Love all Graham Joyce's work. After reading "Smoking Poppy," I felt I knew a lot more
about fatherhood love.

I agree.

Until I came to your comment, I was going to mention Xena and Grabrielle. One of my
best friends and I used to talk endlessly about "Friendship vs romance." Men seem to
think they are the only ones with buddies, thought we. Or that strong women are mannish.
They're just strong. All my Idaho aunts hefted things, lived with horses and also make lace.

I am haunted by Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go." Didn't see the movie.

Or Snow White and Rose Red, sisters and friends. And brave, too.

Jean Christophe de Romain Rolland, una novela de otra época, describe con gran profundidad y detalle largas historias de amistad entre el protagonista y otros personajes. Lo mismo ocurre con otros clásicos, como Thomas Mann y Marguerite Yourcenar.... bueno, podríamos llegar a Aquiles y Patroclo, pasando por Arthur y Lancelot....

I just had this delightful song recommended to me, by the Swedish duo Icona Pop:


Gracias, Ana Flora!

I think we have to mention Thelma and Louise.

I recently read The Robber Bride and was interested in the catalyst that led to these women's lost-lasting friendship. I had one dear female friend who ended our 14 year relationship when she left her husband for a young tango dance instructor. She wanted to shed her old life entirely I suppose. Still it was devastating.

I am returning to this post because I was out of town and off the web for this period of time, and because FRIENDSHIP is precisely what is on my mind. I've written down many selections here, but find I have so much to say about the topic, I can't form a response..so I'm going off to paper and pen to think upon it.

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