Meeting a best female friend can feel like falling in love – identification that borders on obsession that backs back into admiration that slips into desire that overlaps with platonic respect and bursts out into unbridled joy. Meeting a best female friend can feel like falling in love. And sometimes, meeting a best female friend is falling in love. Sometimes, you fall in love with her.
Because I am egotistical and because it is helpful to see fictional characters navigate similar circumstances to one’s own, if I walk into a bookstore and spy a plot synopsis about a young, Western queer woman trying to find better ways to exist within late capitalism, the likelihood is that I will buy that book. This means that a lot of the novels I read exist within similar socio-economic and cultural contexts – the characters are usually middle-class or teetering around it, educated, interested in the arts. I get it: my self-interest is part of the problem in reinscribing the literary centrality of the white middle class. But like Narcissus, I keep coming back to that reflection. Please don’t tell me how his story ends, I don’t want to know, thanks.
And in the books I read, a pattern emerges. There is a character triangulation that I keep coming to, wondering, surely this is not just me? Surely other people are seeing this too? And if my self-interest has not turned me delirious: what does the recurrence of this triangulation mean? It’s there in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (2017). It emerges in Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators (2016). It pops up in Lara Williams’ Supper Club (2019). Boom, there it is again in Rachel B. Glaser’s Paulina & Fran (2015). Here it is once more, in Ruby Porter’s Attraction (2019). It is like an inverted and far more complicated version of Sedgwick’s erotic triangle (in which two men bond over their rivalry for a female’s affection). What I keep seeing is variations on this: two young women, both of them queer or queer-adjacent, intensely connected and wavering between the platonic and the erotic; and then the added complication of an older straight man, with whom one of the women sleeps.
The woman who sleeps with the man is the narrator. Despite the erotic potential that hums between the narrator and her female best friend, they never really talk about it. Instead, they just let the tension bubble and simmer and speak in tongues to every interaction they have, causing a lot of confusion and covetousness and painful jealousy, which makes at least one of them feel crazy. When the narrator sleeps with the man, unspoken resentment abounds between the best friends. But to admit that to each other would be to verbalise the alluvial nature of their relationship, and to force them to deal with precisely what they are to each other. And for some reason – not homophobia per se, remember, they are both queer or at least open to queerness as a possibility for them – that prospect is utterly terrifying.
In the past five years or so, novels about intense female friendship have proliferated in the Anglosphere. The most widely known example of this is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, the English-language translations of which began to appear in 2012. This quartet, an epic exploration of female friendship and its intricate power structures over the course of a lifetime, has become a literary, televisual, and popular culture phenomenon.
Ferrante’s protagonists are childhood friends Lila and Lenu. Growing up, they are the smartest girls in their class, and develop a competitive and compulsive friendship. Lenu is taken by what she sees as Lila’s easy brilliance. While Lila marries a man, stays in their local neighbourhood, has children, and has the scope of her life increasingly delimited, Lenu is able to access further education, and to become a writer. She writes Lila’s story, because she is obsessed with her. The slippage between resentment and admiration, wanting to be and wanting to be with, modulates the pair’s relationship. As Merve Emre writes for The New York Times, ‘Though the novels are billed as tales of female friendship, “friendship” always skates on the edge of absurdity — intimacy is inseparable from violation.’
The men in the novels are basically beside the point – they are markers of structural inequality and reminders of the sexist social institutions that hinder female growth beyond the traditional gender roles of mother and wife. Lila and Lenu make shows of fighting each other over the men in their lives, but we get the feeling that these men could just as easily be stand-ins for any other object of normative desire. The men are something for the women to project their feelings onto so they don’t just say what they mean to each other. On Lila’s wedding day, Lenu is jealous that while she gets to clean Lila, Lila’s husband is the one who will get to ‘sully her’. ‘And it suddenly seemed to me,’ writes Lenu, ‘that the only remedy against the pain I was feeling, that I would feel, was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do it to me, at the exact same time, the exact same thing.’
Leon Craig in the White Review criticises the erasure of unambiguous queer female desire in Ferrante’s quartet, arguing ‘the section… in which Lenu watches Lila in the bath offers a transgressive thrill that isn’t justified by any later use for character development’. But while Craig’s take on the prevalence of ‘gal pals’ in contemporary literature is compelling – and the argument could certainly be made that the Neapolitan quartet is all queer-bait – it seems to me that it is more interesting to analyse novels set in the present day, in which the same dynamic (woman/woman-man) occurs. What of the narrative arcs that are now being spun in novels about female best friends who are intimate co-pairs in the contemporary world?
Most famous of these is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017), set in Dublin. English Literature undergraduate and poet Frances becomes embroiled in an affair with the thirty-something, middle class Nick. This is complicated because Nick is married, and also because Frances evidently still loves her best friend/ex-girlfriend, Bobbi.
Frances puts Bobbi on a pedestal in her admiration, but she also truly loves her – something she again and again tries to downplay to herself. Their relationship undergoes its most substantial test when Bobbi finds out about Frances’ middle-class-man-fucking ways. The betrayal is not simply romantic jealousy – although it is that, clearly, too – but more that Bobbi feels as if Frances has relegated her to the realm of the symbolic rather than the actual. Because Bobbi is also a woman, Frances cannot rely on her deflection being read as evidencing the mysterious feminine. In her emotional complexity, in her mutual understanding of white, queer womanhood, and in the ways that she truly sees Frances, Bobbi is frightening to Frances. So Frances turns to Nick.
American author Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, The Animators (2016), follows the tight coil of a relationship that binds and cuts into Sharon and Mel, animator collaborators and best friends since college. They live and work in New York. Sharon dates an array of disappointing men, while Mel is a lesbian and is clearly in love with Sharon – a state of affairs that Sharon tells herself that she does not know, but she does know; she knows. And it is not until Mel dies of an overdose, and Sharon is confronted with the adoration that so clearly pulsates through all the illustrations Mel ever did of her, that Sharon even admits to herself what surely she must have always known:
It was her weight, her burden, that had tethered her to the chair, to her board, to make what I was seeing right now. My body runs ice-cold with the knowledge of all I didn’t see, the things I had never known.
Why, why, why would Sharon not allow herself to see what was so clearly in front of her the whole time? Why would she not open herself up to the possibility of a romantic relationship with Mel? Why, why, why does Frances consistently sideline Bobbi, who understands her, in favour of Nick, who does not and likely will never? Both these pairs of women are almost fused in their worldly partnerships; they see each other through ‘we’ in order to cope with the encroaching melancholia that sets the backdrop for their twenty-first century lives. But that next step, that one into declaring complete, emotional and physical need? They don’t do it.
Ruby Porter’s Attraction plays with this familiar character triangulation once more, and draws it down into the southern hemisphere – to New Zealand’s North Island. The triangle forms part of a wider, encompassing network of complicated relationships for Attraction’s nameless narrator/protagonist. The narrator is a twenty-three year old fine arts graduate in a toxic relationship with politically righteous stripper Ilana (although Ilana would, of course, not call it a relationship). She has a best friend, Ashi, who she thinks the world of. Ashi generally sleeps with men, a rotation of whom are dependably infatuated with her. One New Year’s, the narrator and Ashi kissed: they did not talk about it after. The narrator has also engaged in a years-long on and off affair with an older, male real estate agent: Nick. (Yes: the uninspiring older white men turned to by Rooney’s and Porter’s protagonists are both called Nick.)
Apart from sporadic flashbacks and remembrances, the action of the novel takes place over two weeks as the narrator goes on a short holiday to her family’s bach with Ilana and Ashi in tow, and then travels to Levin, a small town where her sick grandmother is in hospital. Even though it is Ilana with whom the narrator is sleeping, and even though it is Ilana’s coldness and frequent animosity that takes up much of the narrator’s mental energy, it is evident that it is Ashi who is the narrator’s intimate pair. ‘Ashi and I weren’t always best friends,’ the narrator recalls. ‘Know anyone that long and they’re bound to hurt you.’ Still, Ashi has always told the narrator the truth as she has seen it, and it is Ashi’s criticism that can truly derail the narrator. While the narrator struggles to feel like she loves any of her romantic partners, Ashi’s indictment of the then high-school age narrator’s affair with the older, coupled Nick, left the narrator ‘heartbroken.’ It is Ashi who is able to accurately recognize the fundamental incongruence between the narrator and Ilana: ‘I don’t think either of you see each other, really see each other.’
Rooney and Whitaker both formally foreground the monistic dynamism of their central female pairs; at intervals, each author has her respective narrator speak through the collective ‘we’. Frances and Bobbi, Sharon and Mel, they are literal pairs of artistic co-collaborators. Porter takes more time leading us to comprehend the narrator’s reliance on Ashi. The narrator is a painter; Ashi is studying medicine. The pair do not explicitly co-create each other in art. Instead, Ashi’s presence in the narrator’s mind is like a stamp that has run out of ink: it is pressed everywhere, imprinted, but the nature of its insignia is difficult to make out.
Outlines of the narrator’s underlying feelings for Ashi emerge in less clear ways. As the novel progresses, the narrator repeatedly compares herself to Ashi. The narrator sees herself as fundamentally unlovable, whereas it seems to her that everyone finds Ashi attractive. Remembering a party she attended with Ashi, the narrator thinks, ‘This was her real life. These were her real friends. She was always at the centre of my world, but I orbited hers.’ The dynamic that she perceives between them bears an uncanny similarity to the way in which Lenu compares herself to Lila, Frances to Bobbi, and Sharon to Mel. There is awe; there is jealousy; there is desire. And then, for some reason, there is a man.
When she initially gets together with Nick, the narrator is an insecure schoolgirl desperate for emotional and sexual validation. Nick is a white adult male, in a relationship, with a stable, professional job. He has the narrator leave her school uniform on as he has sex with her in her family home. His desire signifies normative approval to her. But years later, the dynamic has shifted. The narrator’s worldly attitude has largely transmuted into apathy and malaise. She no longer cares about Nick, and this makes him want her more. She does not want to be responsible for his emotions. Her mother sees Nick outside their house one night, after the narrator has again broken up with him.
— Do you have to keep breaking his heart? She said.
But that was what I reveled in.
What the narrator desires in Nick is his desire: proof of her control. Once she has it, Nick himself is superfluous. The narrator’s avowed emotional callousness with Nick accords in some ways with what Indiana Seresin has recently identified as a kind of pervasive heteropessimism in contemporary ‘woke’ culture – that is, the ironic performance of detachment from heterosexuality by those who nevertheless consciously partake in exclusively heterosexual sex acts and structures. But heteropessimism does not quite cover the possible remit of the narrator’s desire and physicalized ideology, because she is attracted to and sleeps with both men and women. That is, she could theoretically opt out of heterosexual relations. But, like Frances with Nick 1.0, she does not do this. And she does not pursue Ashi, the woman who understands her, who she is clearly attracted to, who she has kissed in the past.
When one of Ashi’s male paramours comes to visit her at the bach, the narrator’s resentment shines through.
It’s impossible to look away from him. Lachlan. That smug face, those smug hands, rubbing their mediocrity all over Ashi. It’s as if he wants to mash it right into her, and take a little something back at the same time. They always want to take something away. She shouldn’t let him. She should hold onto it all.
When Ilana breaks up with the narrator, leaving her alone and depressed in Levin, the narrator is sad. But it is actually another moment that same day, when the narrator sees that Ashi has changed her Facebook status to ‘in a relationship’ with Lachlan, that the she goes into a full-on decline. She fantasizes about slicing Lachlan up, ‘skinning him with the precision of a butcher’. And ‘Not just Lachlan, Ilana too, Nick, Lloyd. I cut them into little pieces, so small you could fit them in your palm.’ Ashi is the only love interest that the narrator does not want to reduce, making her less than what she is. We only try to contain people who we think are smaller than us; people that we read as containable.
So why doesn’t the narrator throw caution to the wind and give it a go with Ashi? Why doesn’t Sharon open herself up to Mel in that way? Why does Frances tell Nick to ‘come and get her’ when Bobbi already has her and always will?
A cynical take might be that in creating queer, intimate female pairs for their woke female narrators, but in having these narrators consistently dodge explicit, queer, erotic and romantic commitment in favour of relations with men, novelists like Rooney, Whitaker, and Porter are simply performing heteropessismism. That is, they are lamenting what little nourishment heterosexual relations currently offer women, but they are having their female protagonists sleep with men anyway – a veritable shrug emoticon in response to the prospect of transgressing and developing non-normative gender roles and sexual relations.
There is, however, another possibility. This one is less political; more rooted in basic human fear; in not wanting to lose what we love.
These narrators each intuitively understand that their female best friend is their match. On some level they each know that she is the only one who can support and challenge them in equal measure. This knowledge makes the stakes with her far higher than with anyone else. Frances tries to write about Bobbi in order to inhabit her. Sharon laboriously animates Mel’s entire childhood with the same intention. Porter’s narrator ends the novel painting Ashi, ‘thick morning sun in her hair, like a saint’, and brushing over stains of Lachlan beside her, ‘leaving only shiny splinters’. These women love each other so much; it can feel safer not to transgress their relationship out of words and art, to where it could potentially be damaged, lessened, or imploded. With a man, different performances of the female self can be explored, different modes of knowing. And your brilliant friend remains your brilliant friend.
Perhaps these brilliant friends would be brilliant lovers and life partners, too. But sometimes we don’t do the things that seem to make the most sense, or the thing that is the most brave. Sometimes we seek to preserve the thing that is most special to us by halting it, suspending it in amber, perpetually on the cusp of transformation. And we stride off in another direction with that amber in our pocket. As Frances concludes,
You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.
Or, as Porter’s narrator says, when she finally picks up a paintbrush again, after not marking a canvas since art school:
This is the way a line unfolds. Tentative, at first. Hold your breath. And then let it fall out, the parts you can’t keep in.
Craig, Leon. ‘[Getting] Down With Gal Pals’. The White Review, November 2018.
Emre, Merve, ‘Elena Ferrante Stays Out of the Picture’. The New York Times Magazine, October 2018.
Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend. London & New York: Europa Editions, 2012.
Glaser, Rachel B. Paulina & Fran. London: Granta, 2015.
Liu, Rebecca. ‘The Making of a Milliennial Woman’. Another Gaze, June 2019.
Rooney, Sally. Conversations With Friends. London: Faber & Faber, 2017.
Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Seresin, Indiana. ‘On Heteropessimism’. The New Inquiry, October 2019.
Whitaker, Kayla Rae. The Animators. New York: Random House, 2016.
Williams, Lara. Supper Club. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2019.
Madeleine Gray is a recipient of a 2019 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the final of three essays by Thorne that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Eloise Grills and Melissa Thorne.