Did all friendships … involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?
–Zadie Smith, Swing Time
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.
–Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
In this course, we will explore the Women’s Friendship Novel. While it waxes and wanes in popularity, it’s arguably been on an upswing for several years, with the quintessential recent example being Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle.
We will identify the defining characteristics of the Friendship Novel, as well as common variations. Is inequality between the players an essential ingredient? What about antagonism and betrayal? Is there room for stories of mutually supportive relationships, and what do the stakes of conflict say? We will also discuss the overlap with bildungsromans or coming-of-age, sisters, and romance. Finally, we will explore notable friendships among women novelists.
This is a graduate-level seminar course. It is expected that students will read the assigned novel(s) for each week before class, and be ready to discuss their discoveries to include supplemental material of their choice. This can take the form of articles, but also television shows, films, and Twitter threads.
Class topics include, but are not limited to:
- Childhood friendships. Includes Epic Friendships, lasting an entire lifetime
- Teen Friendships: Toxic, self destructive, or everyone’s doing it?
- The “Lost Years”: Friendships in the midst of partnering up and parenthood
- Women of a certain age: Older women
- Sexuality and friendship: Experimentation vs. Romance. Includes platonic friendships among queer women
- Group dynamics: Beyond two protagonists
- The Male Gaze: Male writers of women’s friendship novels
- Class and race: Upper Manhattan vs. everyone else
- OG Friendship: The history of friendship novels in literature
Why is friendship between women a subject of fascination, especially today? What are the implications – social and political, of course, but also for the conversations around gender and “serious literature”?
- “The Biological Blessings of Friendship” by Lydia Denworth. Scientific American, May 2016.
- Secret Sisterhood by Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa
- Sula by Toni Morrison
- The Group by Mary McCarthy
- Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (please do read the rest of the quartet if possible; it’s essential to take these as a whole)
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
- Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
- Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
- Marlena by Julie Buntin
- Hold Still by Nina Lacour
- The L Word (television show)
- The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
- How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz
- The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
- The Golden Girls (television show)
Meghan Brawley is a writer and librarian, and the co-host of Marginally, a podcast about writing, day jobs, and friendship. Her work has appeared on Kirkus online, book and culture website Forever Young Adult, the feminist website Quotabelle, and the Dallas Morning News, as well as select conference and trade publications. She writes both young adult and adult fiction centered around complex women’s friendships, and her current project is a YA novel about authenticity, climate change, and surfing. A Texan in exile, she currently shares her North Carolina home — the 9th in 15 years — with her partner, two sons, and an elderly dog.
Author Photo Credit: Sadia Barlow