The best books to read about how women's friendships shape the stories of their lives

Nancy K. Miller Author Of My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism
By Nancy K. Miller

Who am I?

I’m a memoirist living in New York and my women friends have saved my life many times. I didn’t fully understand how important they were to me until the three I write about died within a few years of each other in the early aughts. I also teach memoir as an academic. I’ve learned from my favorite writers how crucial it is to push past shame and embarrassment to try and reach emotional truth—whatever that is for each of us. Only readers can decide whether one succeeds, but for me, the most important gift memoir can bestow is the writer’s willingness to risk intimate self-disclosure.  


I wrote...

My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism

By Nancy K. Miller,

Book cover of My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism

What is my book about?

My Brilliant Friends is a memoir of my three friendships forged in feminism with writers Carolyn Heilbrun, Diane Middlebrook, and Naomi Schor. Our bonds were intense and complicated, our stories were too. These relationships combined personal and professional experiences over the decades in which women faced the challenges of male-dominated domains. We shared ambitions as writers for our books and hopes for our careers, and supported each other, even during difficult moments of rivalry and competition. My Brilliant Friends is an elegy to three friends who changed my life and whom I still love many years after their death.

The books I picked & why

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Writing a Woman's Life

By Carolyn G. Heilbrun,

Book cover of Writing a Woman's Life

Why this book?

In Writing a Woman’s Life, the critic Carolyn G. Heilbrun (and witty detective writer Amanda Cross), argues that there are four ways to write a woman’s life. The woman may tell it herself in an autobiography; she may tell it in fiction; a biographer might write her biography in her place; and most exciting and perplexing: the woman may “write” her own life before actually living it, unconsciously, as the author herself did. All resist the conventional expectations about women’s destinies.

The book shows how much we don’t know about women’s lives and how important it is to discover their true stories. I decided to embrace the metaphor and begin to write my own life. Carolyn herself was my life-altering friend and mentor.

Writing a Woman's Life

By Carolyn G. Heilbrun,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Writing a Woman's Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this modern classic, Carolyn G. Heilbrun builds an eloquent argument demonstrating that writers conform all too often to society's expectations of what women should be like at the expense of the truth of the female experience. Drawing on the careers of celebrated authors including Virginia Woolf, George Sand, and Dorothy Sayers, Heilbrun illustrates the struggle these writers undertook in both work and life to break away from traditional "male" scripts for women's roles.


Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship

By Gail Caldwell,

Book cover of Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship

Why this book?

The memoir helped me come to terms with the loss of three of my closest friends. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is an elegy to a beloved friend. It’s a book about grieving, of course, but also about recapturing loving memories of an intense relationship. The title, however, doesn’t hint at the story’s unusual major theme: the two women, both writers, meet over their love of and care for dogs! I confess that am not a dog lover, but I ended up captivated by the women’s passionate devotion to their animals and by seeing how this attachment strengthened their human bond. You don’t have to share a canine passion to be moved by this intimate portrait.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship

By Gail Caldwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Let's Take the Long Way Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

They met over their dogs. Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story)became best friends, talking about everything from their love of books and their shared history of a struggle with alcohol to their relationships with men. Walking the woods of New England and rowing on the Charles River, these two private, self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with cancer. With her signature exquisite prose, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion, and courage…


Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

By Ann Patchett,

Book cover of Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

Why this book?

In this memoir, the celebrated novelist Ann Patchett tells the story of her intense and troubling relationship with Lucy Grealy, author of the bestselling memoir, Autobiography of a Face. Grealy, whose face was disfigured by a sarcoma when she was young, died at 39 after years of restorative surgery, from what might, in the end, have been a drug overdose. Patchett likes to think of herself as a loving, self-sacrificing friend, but maybe, the narrative also suggests, the story is more complicated than she lets on. Despite her grief, the novelist struggles to determine what might have saved Lucy from herself and wonders whether she met her own degree of responsibility. 

Can you save a friend from self-destruction? What is your responsibility for keeping a vulnerable person alive? Like most of us, I prefer thinking that I’m always the good and noble friend especially in a story about a relationship fraught with competition and rivalry. Patchett’s memoir shows the inner workings of a friendship in which the good friend can’t save the self-destructive one, and later cannot let go of the memory of her own love and devotion. What, finally, do we owe our friends? The answer isn’t clear.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship

By Ann Patchett,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Truth & Beauty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of The Dutch House, Commonwealth and Bel Canto, Winner of The Women's Prize for Fiction and the Pen/Faulkner Award.

When Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy met in college they began a friendship that would define their lives. Lucy Grealy lost part of her jaw to childhood cancer, and a large part of her life to chemotherapy and endless reconstructive surgeries. Stoic but vulnerable, damaged by bullying but fascinated by fame, Lucy had an incandescent personality that illuminated those around her.

In this tender, brutal book, Ann Patchett describes Lucy's life and her own platonic love for…


Anne Sexton: A Biography

By Diane Wood Middlebrook,

Book cover of Anne Sexton: A Biography

Why this book?

This poignant narrative of Anne Sexton’s life takes you inside the complicated emotions of a prize winning poet who began her career as a suburban housewife and mother. I especially loved but also envied the portrait of Sexton’s long friendship with poet Maxine Kumin with whom Sexton took her first steps in the writing of poetry. Famously, the two women kept a separate phone line open between their houses so that they could share and craft lines between domestic chores. Sadly, despite the pulls of friendship, the biography shows, even the most talented writer has demons that can’t be vanquished. Middlebrook reveals the psychic cost of creativity, especially for women artists in the years before feminism. 

Anne Sexton: A Biography

By Diane Wood Middlebrook,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Anne Sexton as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the time of her suicide in October 1974, Anne Sexton, 45, occupied a central position on the American poetry scene. Today, her reputation is tangled up with that of Sylvia Plath, whom she knew, and tainted with images of monster or victim. This biography, written with the full co-operation of Sexton's family and her principal psychiatrist who released three years of audiotaped therapy sessions, reveals and pivots around the creative relationship Anne Sexton struck with an incurable illness. Suffering from a mental disorder that eluded diagnosis, Anne Sexton underwent intensive psychotherapy and repeated bouts in mental institutions for nearly…


My Brilliant Friend

By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (translator),

Book cover of My Brilliant Friend

Why this book?

Like me, millions of mainly women readers were captivated by this saga of an intense and heartbreaking relationship between two girls that evolves over four volumes. The story of Lila and Lenù’s friendship begins in 1950s Naples when they are young schoolgirls, living in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood. Even though on the surface my boring middle-class life did not resemble theirs even remotely, the emotions that tied the two together as they grew into adolescence feel universal. In fact, reading Ferrante’s novel made me understand what I was trying to figure out in my own book––and led me to borrow its title–why some unforgettable friendships between women are both exquisite and doomed, necessary and devastating.

My Brilliant Friend

By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked My Brilliant Friend as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

OVER 5 MILLION COPIES SOLD IN ENGLISH WORLDWIDE

OVER 1 MILLION COPIES SOLD IN THE UK

OVER 14 MILLION COPIES OF THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET SOLD WORLDWIDE

NOW A MAJOR TV SERIES

GUARDIAN 100 BEST BOOKS OF THE 21st CENTURY

58 WEEKS ON THE BOOKSELLER'S TOP 20 ORIGINAL FICTION BESTSELLERS LIST

SHORTLISTED FOR WATERSTONES BOOK OF THE YEAR 2015

43 INTERNATIONAL RIGHTS DEALS

Now in B-format Paperback

From one of Italy's most acclaimed authors, comes this ravishing and generous-hearted novel about a friendship that lasts a lifetime. The story of Elena and Lila begins in the 1950s in a poor but…


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