Over the last few days I have been immersed in Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend. The book is best summed up as an ode to female friendship, with all its ups and downs, highs and lows, tantrums and tears, laughter and fear.
The story revolves around two young girls, Lenu and Lina, growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Naples, who establish a wary friendship as children. But in telling their tale through the prism of the traumas and triumphs of their relationship, Ferrante delves deep into some of the universal truths of the nature of friendship (and its limits).
Reading it late into the night, I began to think about how much we neglect the importance of same-sex friendships because of our very modern obsession with romantic love (or even sexual desire).
But however much we ignore it, we cannot deny the importance of friendship in our lives: the relationship of a child with an elderly neighbour; of a teacher with a favourite pupil; of the man who lives alone with his dog; and of course, that which springs up between two women.
Of all of these, female friendships are the most special, I think (yes, yes, I know, that makes me a sexist so-and-so). And never is their intensity more marked than in childhood and adolescence – that is, before romantic love rears its unruly head.
I still remember my first day at school, kitted out in a strange new uniform, knees knocking together with nerves, my heart pounding with fear of the unknown horrors lying in wait for me in the schoolroom.
My only comfort was the presence of my ‘best friend’ who was starting school the same time as me. We clung together as if our lives depended on it, sitting at adjoining desks, sharing our tiffins at break time, and as the final bell sounded, making a break for freedom.
We had survived the first day of school. Things could only get better from now on.
And they did. We got to know our classmates. We lost our mortal fear of our teacher. We played hide-and-seek in the lunch hour. Slowly but surely we made other friends.
And by the time we finished school we were part of two very different groups. But the memories of that first day in school ensured that the bonds of our friendship never really loosened no matter how much they frayed.
It’s often said that your closest friends are the ones you make in school. And certainly, adolescent girls can get rather intense about their feelings for one another, especially in all-girl schools.
Younger girls develop ‘crushes’ on their seniors; not in a creepy, hyper-sexualised way, but in the sense of idolising them, hanging on their every word, even imitating the way they look and dress.
As for the seniors, their emotional lives are in turmoil as well, as ‘best friends’ are made and unmade, quarrels take on epic proportions and end in teary make-up sessions. It’s almost like a love affair, with all of the love but minus the affair.
And then, come the actual love affairs. That’s when the real dramas start. There’s the jealousy that your best friend now has a boyfriend. There’s the judgement when you really can’t work out what she sees in that jerk.
Or even worse, you can see all too well why she likes him; it’s just that you can’t figure out why he likes her when he should really be liking you. I know, it’s exhausting stuff! But the good part is that, if your friendship survives this tricky phase, you will probably be friends for life.
Until, of course, you put children in the mix. That really is the breaking point of most female friendships. When one of the two gets married and starts breeding and the other is too busy conquering the work world, that’s when the tensions kick in.
It is not that anyone is judging the other for her life choices. It is just that as time goes on, the two erstwhile best friends realise that they have less and less in common with one another.
The harried mother can no longer party as she used to. The driven career woman has no real appetite for baby sick and dirty diapers.
Slowly but surely, both women gravitate towards those they can better relate to. One makes friends with other new mothers in her baby group; the others gets closer to work colleagues.
They still remain friends with one another but become more and more absent from each other’s lives.
But perhaps the most enduring of female friendships are those that are made in mid-life. They could be made at work, at the local club, with the wives of your husband’s friends, or even at the gym; the context doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that by now you are sure of what kind of person you are, and what you are looking for in a friend. You no longer have the patience – or, indeed the time – for hypocrisy and manipulation.
You are not interested in playing games or even indulging in a bit of one-upmanship. All you are looking for is a friend who will look out for you. And once you find her, you will never ever let go.
And as the two of you grow old together, comparing pregnancy scars, discussing hot flushes, moaning about your husband or children, bitching about the boss, giggling over mojitos at your weekly girlie lunches, or just watching a movie at the neighbourhood multiplex, remember to give a thanks to female friendships. They really are the best.
From HT Brunch, May 24
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