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?