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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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My Brilliant Friend

By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein

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.

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