4 Female Friendships In Books & On Screen That Inspired My Debut Novel, 'The Sun In Your Eyes'
It’s been a while and I’m fuzzy on the details of what happened between Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. But I remember so clearly the feeling I had when reading about their friendship – the curiosity and compulsion to see where they were going with, and without, each other. They weren’t simply friends, they had an awareness of their friendship as something they were actively creating, that was shaping them.
That feeling came back to me more recently when I tore through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, just wanting to be in the world of Lila and Elena. There’s something about finely drawn portraits of female friendship I find hard to resist. They tell us so much about who we are and who we want to be. There’s been no shortage of intriguing ones, especially in the last few years, in books and on the screen.
With that in mind, I've compiled four female friendships in books, TV, and movies. These four helped inspire me when I was imagining the intense, sustaining connection between Viv and Lee, the two friends in my first novel, The Sun in Your Eyes, available now from William Morrow.
1. Advancing Paul Newman by Eleanor Bergstein
I love everything about this book by Eleanor Bergstein, and if I tried to quote every great line, I’d be transcribing the whole thing. But here’s a snippet, Bergstein describing one of her main characters, Ila Rappaport, boarding a flight:
“Ila… glorious when in love undistinguished when not in love – presently in love with psychiatrist turned orthopedist strong but not insensitive – working on a ridiculous job wasting her talents because she was very talented but had a work block – once had a story in The New Yorker about riding on a bus – came rushing down the plastic-walled ramp of the plane chattering over her shoulder to the steward behind her carrying her extra hand luggage staring down sideways at her legs – skinny in long skirts spectacular in short skirts now very short skirts—settled into the remaining aisle seat, fastened her seatbelt, locked her knees, and flicked the hem of her plaid cape over the opening between her olive-green textured thighs.”
Bergstein zooms off from there and introduces us to Ila’s friend, analytical, organized Kitsy Frank, who fears she isn’t as soulful, as true, as Ila. We learn that this “is the story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life.” This novel was published in 1973 and it’s out of print (why?!), though you can still find old copies.
The narrative shifts backward and forward, from when Ila and Kitsy meet in 1959, just out of college on a trip to Europe to the “present” of 1968 where the two of them are campaigning for anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. (Paul Newman endorsed McCarthy, hence the title). This is such a fluid, nuanced, inventively constructed novel, and Bergstein mixes politics and social action with what has typically been categorized as “feminine” or “trivial,” things like shopping and personal style. Bergstein would go on to write the screenplay for Dirty Dancing, another work whose depth can be overlooked. But here Bergstein goes for all of it, jumbles it together with such momentum, and out of the flurry emerges a very real, precise, and moving portrait of these two women.
2. Doll & Em
In two pitch-perfect seasons, this show has depicted what a close friendship can look like in your forties, when your differences become more pronounced but you also need each other in new ways. Doll (Dolly Wells) and Em (Emily Mortimer), best friends since childhood, find themselves in divergent places in their lives. In the show’s first year, Dolly, heartbroken after a break up and working as a waitress in London, heads to Los Angeles for a while to be Em’s assistant on a film shoot. The power dynamic, usually buried just below the surface, is brought to the forefront; we see how selflessness can be incredibly self-serving and how getting coffee for your friend takes on different meanings when it’s something you’ve been hired to do. While Em, by certain normative social standards, is more successful – a movie star, married with two children – there’s a sense that Dolly is the natural, the real deal, and the more genuine of the two. But even this opposition isn’t so neatly presented, and if they’re not necessarily on equal footing, Doll and Em are equally good at judging each other. Though Doll initially comes off as the more sympathetic one, we see the ways they both struggle with their choices, especially the ways in which Em has taken on responsibilities, and made subsequent compromises, that Doll hasn’t.
Season two takes place in New York, with Doll and Em directing a play they’ve written together, starring Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood. Though the imbalance between them is no longer so stark, Doll is living on the ground floor of Em’s Brooklyn brownstone, keenly aware of the awkwardness, as she says to Em, of being “with you but not with you.” And just as Doll opens up to her friend, Em has fallen asleep. There’s a lot of merging and layering and nesting going on in this show; Wells and Mortimer are playing versions of themselves, while Wilde and Wood are playing versions of themselves playing versions of Doll and Em. Which sounds ponderous now that I’ve written it out, but on screen, the ironic sensibility, sharply funny timing, and effortless naturalism make it marvelous. Doll and Em’s play, like the characters themselves and their relationship, keeps morphing and shapeshifting. It frustrates everyone, but it also becomes a kind of kaleidoscope: intricate, complicated, and beautiful.
3. NW by Zadie Smith
The friendship between Keisha Blake and Leah Hanwell, two of the characters at the heart of Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, isn’t an easy one. Bonded since childhood, they’ve grown up, but also grown apart, in the same housing project in the Northwest part of London where much the book takes place. As teenagers, a “sudden and violent divergence in their tastes” – they “had only Prince left” in common “and he was wearing thin” – sees Leah hanging out with a cooler crowd, leaving Keisha lonely and questioning. They’re mismatched, not only in terms of their interests, but their ways of being in the world.
Leah is effortlessly giving of herself, while Keisha is self-conscious and self-monitoring. “A little of [Leah’s] universal good feeling spread to Keisha by association, though no one ever mistook Keisha’s cerebral willfulness for her friend’s generosity of spirit.” Keisha is “business-like,” even in her own pleasures, “as if delegating a task to somebody else.” Self-invention comes naturally to Leah; she tries on styles and identities fluidly, until she eventually settles back into a mode that Keisha recognizes. For Keisha, it’s a much more calculated, fraught process. It requires taking on a whole new name, and in college, Keisha becomes Natalie. In a way, Leah and Keisha aren’t so much a pair as a trio, with Natalie, as Keisha struggles to reconcile her two selves. No surprise, Natalie is in for some unraveling.
Though their relationship lasts into their adulthood, it’s not particularly intimate. And adding to the tensions between them now are pronounced class differences: Natalie’s well-appointed Victorian house and farm-to-table dinner parties make Leah, not nearly as well-off, “feel like a child.” Smith is so good at detailing the failures of a friendship as well as the paradoxes. How stifling it is when you desperately want to be someone else and your old friend doesn’t know how to let you do that. But also how an old friend knows you in ways that you don’t know yourself. And the lovely moments Smith describes only underscore the loss. Here they are in college, Leah visiting Natalie at school: “Leah wore a green dress and Natalie wore a purple one, and they got ready together and walked to the dining hall arm in arm. The obvious pleasure they took in each other, their deep familiarity and ease in each other’s company, made them more attractive as a pair than they ever could have been alone…”
4. Mina Tannenbaum
This 1994 French film, written and directed by Martine Dugowson, tells the story of Mina and Ethel, two Jewish girls growing up in Paris, and follows the ebb and flow of their friendship, from when they meet, as misfits in a ballet class, against the backdrop of the May 1968 riots, to their teenage humiliations in the '70s, to their adulthood in the '90s. Grown-up Mina is confident in her talent as a painter but wary and guarded in the world. Ethel becomes a flirty, outwardly successful, dyed-blonde TV journalist. They argue about feminism, about parents, about relationships. Their lives diverge and yet, a current continues to exist between them as the movie explores the ways in which we can’t help ourselves, even when we know better.
With tonal shifts from comedy to melodrama, and stylistic nods to French New Wave cinema, this movie is so full of life, capturing inner moments and outer rhythms just perfectly. Maybe it hit me so hard because, like any friendship, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. My mother dragged me to see it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it was screening as part of a Jewish Film Festival. It was 1995, the summer after my freshman year of college, I was mildly depressed, and not particularly in the mood for what I figured would be a dutiful representation of my "heritage." But by the end, I was gutted. My mom and I took to the restroom after the screening, crying in our stalls. I sent away for a copy and watched it over and over again through college and whenever I was feeling down or lonely in my twenties in New York. I don't think it's currently available on DVD or streaming, so this is really my plea for somebody to please get on this. I miss Mina and Ethel.
Deborah Shapiro is a writer living in Chicago. The Sun in Your Eyes is her first novel. It is available now from William Morrow.
Images: HBO; Ima Films