Reading Remedy: dealing with the end of a friendship

When platonic love fails, the heartbreak can be as difficult as any other break-up. Here, we select books and authors who offer useful perspectives, from Zadie Smith to Ruth Jones to Irvine Welsh.

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Humans make a lot of work out of relationships. Forming them, maintaining them, losing them, recovering them. I’ve always maintained that the greatest love story of my life – the most dramatic, the most heart-breaking, the most giddily joyful and one that spanned my late teens to my early thirties – has been with someone I’ve never even kissed. Friendship often burns longer than love. Why, then, is so little space given over to what happens when it fizzles out?

I can’t help but feel that lockdown might have accelerated the natural whittling of friendships that occurs as we go through life. Being confined to our homes and our postcodes and spending too much time online has inevitably demonstrated which of our friends we want to see and keep in touch with, and which we don’t reach out to. But even without a global pandemic, few friendships are evergreen. And learning how to accept that can be difficult, not least because to discuss losing a friendship feels, somehow, inexplicably taboo.

Far more stories have been written about romantic loss than platonic, but that doesn’t mean broken friendships – and the quiet grief they can cause – haven’t found their way into literature. One of the past decade’s heftier epic stories revolved around a turbulent friendship between two women. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels followed the interlocking lives of Lenù and Lila in such meticulous detail that those reading could find some reflection of lived friendship in any part of their shared experiences.

Our friends can act as mirrors, reflecting the people we were, where we’ve come from, and who we have become

Reading the four books, which start with My Brilliant Friend, it often feels that there is more antipathy between the women than affection, something that makes the fact they are bound together by a difficult, unrelenting love all the more poignant. Written from Lenù’s perspective, all shades of grief are painted here, bringing potential comfort to those who have been in her shoes.

The fracturing of a friendship can often be a sharp and climactic event in fiction, leaving splinters to try and reconcile in the pages beyond. In Ruth Jones’s forthcoming Us Three, the central trio are divided by a betrayal that leaves the reader examining loss, time and recovery over several decades. Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day offers a similar challenge: how to pick apart who is wrong, and who is right, when all parties in question were so firmly bound together in life and feeling? Hadley shows us, as she often does in her work, that friendship and life are as complicated as one another, and that difficult and unexpected things can befall them with equal devastation.

In Swing Time, Zadie Smith shows how childhood friendships can be wrenched apart with the strains and ambitions of adulthood, but also how our friends can act as mirrors, reflecting the people we were, where we’ve come from, and who we have become. Sometimes friendships don’t break because of disagreement as much as of through change: we simply aren’t the same people we were when we started out. It’s a notion that Anna Hope brings to the table in her debut Expectation, too.

Here there is as much reconciliation and joy on the page as there is grief

One of the curiosities about friendship failure in fiction is that those who do explore it are often women. In the essay anthology The Friend Who Got Away, writers Jenny Offil and Elissa Schappell tell their own sides of the story of their broken friendship, while other authors including Elizabeth Strout and Diana Abu Jabar examine friendships they have lost and explore the fall-outs. Another collection, Let Me Know When You’re Home, brings together stories of female friendships that examine break-ups as well as make-ups. Here there is as much reconciliation and joy on the page as there is grief elsewhere.

As for books about male friendship? Well, there’s a distinct shortage. But one of the more definitive is Glue. Irvine Welsh’s narrative is less about the floundering than the foundation of friendship – of the formative experiences that hold four boys from the same part of Edinburgh together into manhood, until a terrible tragedy splinters them.

If a friendship is over, then you’ll need to make space to reflect and accommodate those feelings – and non-fiction can help to process them. Kate Leaver’s The Friendship Cure examines all flavours of friendship, and will help to put not only what you’ve lost in proportion, but help you to cherish those friends that you do hold close. And sometimes it’s worth remembering that a rest in your friendship can be as good as a rest. Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty reflects on the author’s long-term and turbulent friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy. Things are not always easy, but they nevertheless endure until the end.

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