Last summer, I received an email from Anya, a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Its contents were startling—her older sister’s death following a heart transplant—but even more than the sad news, it was the fact of the message itself that hit me with unexpected force.

Anya was my best friend in high school. I don’t remember if we met in AP English, the class we both excelled in, or AP math, the class she did. In the photo I have of us then—this was the early ’90s—we look comically alike, from the hue of our jeans to the cut of our sideswept, long-layered hair and our identical earrings, sunglasses, and cross-body handbags, which contained lip gloss and graphing calculators. Never mind that she is a petite first-generation Indian-American while I am tall and Irish. We were Sine and Cosine, me and not-me, products of a materialistic Midwestern suburb so anodyne it felt like nothing meant anything and possibly never would.

Not pictured is what we really had in common, which was our disaffection. Too odd-cornered and interior to be good joiners of extracurriculars, we instead had after-school jobs in an upscale strip mall, measuring our boredom in art-house movies, in sales of holiday-themed sweaters and “ethnic” knickknacks. Already, we were looking over the shoulder of life to our futures: hers in medicine, me in something less concrete, something wordier and dreamier, in real cities, in lives that mattered somehow, in which beauty had purchase. Anya was the only person I knew who aspired to something more than a career in management consulting and a comfortable house in the suburbs.

Her self-possession and certainty of purpose was what I loved most about her. We had been socialized to smile and agree and apologize, to believe that we weren’t feeling what we felt, and she did none of those things. Anya had opinions, and it unnerved people. She drove stick shift; she ordered dessert to arrive before her salad. And, of course, she did for me what best friends do: foster the inner world of my thoughts and desires, in a culture that saw us mostly from the outside, as problematic teen bodies in need of Accutane, highlights, or maybe the track team, bodies in waiting for a professional future.

There was no dramatic parting of ways: We simply left home and moved on—she to medical school, me to graduate school and stints overseas. Other friendships took over and neither of us looked back, until we did.

The raw narrative power of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, beginning with My Brilliant Friend, published in the U.S. in 2012, seemed to awaken a new generation of writers to the dramatic potential of a long friendship. In its wake have come an extraordinary outpouring of novels on the subject, including Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, Emma Cline’s The Girls, Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, and Claire Messud’s upcoming The Burning Girl, among others. Here was love and betrayal, competition and support—not the rosy, wind-beneath-my-wings kind, but the kind that saves your ass, drives you to your abortion, takes care of your children, inspires your novel, and bears witness to the hard-won formation of the person you are. Reading them, you thought afresh about friendships that had, perhaps, come to occupy a surprising centrality or longevity that our siblings or spouses did not. Or you looked on Facebook to find out what had happened to certain childhood friends, bound up, as they are, so intimately with our sense of origin and identity, class and culture. Much of the suspense of these novels grew from what is revealed when two people from a similar but often crucially distinct set of circumstances exercise what choices they have amid the grand crapshoot of fate. In this, they remind me of Michael Apted’s 7 Up, the documentary series that revisits the same set of children every seven years as they grow into adulthood. We read (or watch) and think: What is character? What is luck? To what extent do any of us really author our own lives?

Advertisement

Through the periscope of retrospection, a childhood friendship can’t help but appear deeply symbolic. And so when Anya reached out, it was irresistible. I couldn’t stop looking from the person she was then to the person she had become, the touch of gray in her black hair, visible when she FaceTimed me, the sea view behind her, as if she might explain something about my own flight path. I began to read her emails as I would plot points in a gripping novel. Who had she become? And why did it matter to me so much?

Similar questions are at the heart of Julie Buntin’s standout debut novel, Marlena (Henry Holt and Co.), which cannily interweaves two different time frames to capture an electric friendship and its legacy. Following the divorce of her parents, Cat is uprooted from her East Coast prep school and dropped into a desolate Lake Michigan town, where elegant vacation homes line the waterfront, but much of the population live in trailers. She finds a buoy in the girl next door, a reckless beauty with perfect pitch, a backyard meth lab, and “that glow to her that lives in lost things.” Needy and loyal, flattering and fun, Marlena makes it all somehow bearable, the unreliable parents, the menacing attention of boys and men, the kind of unremitting boredom that makes a box of Franzia and another of macaroni and cheese an event. Like Ferrante and Smith, Buntin is attuned to the way in which adolescent friends embolden and betray. And, as in its predecessors, Marlena is narrated by the friend who escapes.

In 2014, Buntin wrote an essay for The Atlantic about her friend Lea, who had died of complications related to substance abuse four years before: “At 16, I was in love with her in a not-entirely platonic way, which every woman who has been the sidekick in a teenage girl-duo will completely understand. And, like a true sidekick, I didn’t question our bad choices—I followed Lea whole hog, in the spirit of best-friendship, of adventure. But part of me anticipated the person who writes this now, by which I mean that even as we chased a night of cocaine with Xanax and Lifetime movies, I already knew that this was the stuff of my wayward youth, and that I’d outgrow it.”

The ultimate betrayal, of course, is to leave it all behind: the rough neighborhood in Naples, the North West London housing complex, the forsaken corners of America. (Both Swing Time and the Neapolitan novels include a redemptive reconnection.) Like Lenù and Smith’s narrator, Cat is a keen observer of all the markers of upward mobility: in this case, a New York life complete with a literary job and a kind, stable husband who makes dinner. The novel’s most impressive passages concern the watermark that remains, visible in the light of too many after-work martinis, and in attempts at adult friendships:

“When I hope to become friends with a woman, we usually meet, early on, at bars. Dim places with complicated wine lists and small plates for sharing. We order elegant, expensive things, adjusting our choices to each other. The pretty circle of tuna, the way the raw gems tumble onto the plate when you tap the shape with your knife. . . . After a little while, an hour, less if it isn’t going to work, I begin to notice the way she interrupts and charges forward with her story or asks me question after question. How she requests a second drink—when I do, which is usually before hers is done, or when she’s ready, or not at all. How she eats, carefully moving a portion to her own plate, napkin unfurled on her lap, or if she’s comfortable right away, using her fingers. If she picks. The quality of her listening. Her tone when she mentions her partner, the last person she fucked. Whether she cares what I think. Any and all tics, hand talkers, fidgeters, lip biters, eye contact avoiders, the woman I instantly adored who got too close when she was trying to make a point, who would put a hand emphatically on whatever part of me she could reach and try to touch me into understanding. I notice, and I begin to see the outline of the best friend, the girl she shaped herself around, according to. For so many women, the process of becoming requires two. It’s not hard to make out the marks the other one left.”

Advertisement

One friend is erased, another makes her visible: These stories illuminate not only all the ways in which women disappear—from school or from the stage, from the radar of what is deemed to be an acceptable life, from the arc of their own ambitions—but also the uneasy constellation of reasons they do, which often summon a natural solipsism. “Her story is like a hologram. Tilt it, let the light hit it from a different angle, and the dead girl we’re talking about is me,” Buntin wrote in The Atlantic. “We’d both gotten cited by police at 14 for drinking beer on the beach. At the height of our friendship I matched her drink for drink, inhale for inhale. If I’d had a little less luck, or she’d had a little more—how would this story go?”

Anya didn’t disappear—she’s resplendently alive and well in Victoria—but her story, too, has an element of loss: the end of a dreamed-of career, and with it that clarion sense of purpose. She had devoted nearly half of her life to becoming a highly specialized surgeon, only to abandon clinical practice not long after she was board certified. She was still sorting through the reasons she’d left—her experiences with the health care system as a family member; the toll of sexism; a bureaucratic structure emphasizing profit over patient well-being; the dissonance, as she put it, “both cognitive and spiritual, between the ethics of care versus the execution of care.” It added up to a crisis of faith. She had no idea what to do with the rest of her life, and I understood that this, the end of certainty, was another thing to be mourned, and she understood that I understood.

As we traded notes and advice—I helped her with her sister’s eulogy; she tirelessly answered my questions about child nutrition and development—we cast further and further back in time, recognizing ourselves in each other’s themes and stories, from the births of our small daughters and late marriages to non-Americans to tensions with our families, the accusations that had dogged both of us in our 20s and 30s that we had set our expectations too high. In divergence, many points of convergence. We had something else in common, too: a sense that the professional lives instilled in us as the kind worth having weren’t, after all, the only ones to have. The self-possession of youth had been replaced by the ambivalence of adulthood, and maybe a measure of self-awareness, too. Our messages grew longer and faster, forays into our half-remembered pasts and revised futures. Perhaps, she thought, she should write a book.