Friendship agonistes

A new book on friendship sets Lionel Shriver pondering the elastic nature of these relationships—sometimes frivolous, they can also inflame the same passions as romance
October 18, 2011

Owing to my husband’s seven-year seniority, smoking, and lower male life expectancy, I should live two decades as a widow. So vivid is this dismal future in my mind’s eye that I already maintain a faint parallel universe, in which I rarely shop because I’ve no one to cook for and I can’t marshall the resolve for daily exercise with no one to lie to me about how well-preserved I look. Assuming a credible romantic exhaustion, what would keep me going?

My friends. Since in our ever longer-lived species some people will still live longer than others, droves of my boomer cohort are destined to lose spouses early and will need to rely on whatever network of companions we’ve built in tandem with our marriages. How well or badly we manage those potentially desolate years will depend in large part on how good a job we’ve done at friendship. Now that “friend” is a transitive verb, the social networker should bear in mind that 350 “friends” on Facebook aren’t going to be much use the morning a spouse has collapsed from an aneurysm onto the kitchen floor.

Released on 3rd November, Josie Barnard’s The Book of Friendship (Little, Brown) cites Aristotle’s classification of amity: friendships of “utility,” of “pleasure,” and of “excellence.” Similarly, the 12th-century abbot Aelred of Rievaulx distinguished between “carnal” friendships based on “hope of gain” or “mutual harmony in vice,” as opposed to “true” friendships. But my friendships slop merrily into all these classes. We gladly use each other, for practical help or counsel. We have a good time. And we engage in the heart-to-hearts and political dust-ups of which Aristotle and the good abbot would approve.

What use are these categories? Something about the character of friendship eludes capture. For friendship is elastic, readily morphing from one purpose and one nature to another. It can be frivolous; it can be life-and-death. Unlike blood ties, it is elective. Unlike conventional marriage, it is cheerfully promiscuous. Of all human relationships, it is perhaps the most naturally forgiving. In contrast to the climactic or apocalyptic structure of romance, adult friendship has a quality of ongoingness, which may be one reason that as an abstract topic in Barnard’s overview (“Friendship is confusing”; “Friendship is strange”) it tends to fall flat. This distinctive ongoingness is the reason that friends, like the eponymous programme, are so perfectly suited to the TV series: despite frequent spats, there will always be another episode next week.

Of course, many a friendship does die. But beyond the tearful betrayals of adolescence, most grown-up friendships end on an ellipsis. You lose touch, you move house, the emails and phone calls grow gently further apart. Sometimes one party is more disenchanted than the other, but a disparity of affections is likely to take the passive form of a dinner invitation that is not returned. By and large the demise of adult friendships is slow, unspoken, soft—less like murder than prolonged bedridden illness.


I think that’s why the abrupt, emotionally violent conclusions of two close friendships in my young adulthood have preyed on me so. I could understand a friend gradually losing interest, moving on. I could not understand brutal denunciation, a hot-headed tearing up of contract that I associated with implosions between lovers. While I’ve long since recovered from old romantic injuries, the sheared friendship has left a raw edge, which I’ve tended to seek out obsessively, as one’s tongue compulsively traces a broken tooth.

I first met N in graduate school, where we were both earning MFAs in fiction writing. Again, it is more like lovers: that what first brought you together will tear you apart.

Post-graduation, N wrote a new novel every six months. Because these manuscripts did not see print, I admired her resilience even more than her industry. Enough rejections, no tears—she simply started a new book. Me, I deep-sixed my first novel (wisely) and by 28 had only just finished my second, by which point N had already dashed off a baker’s dozen. Meantime, N and I may have shopped, dined, and swam together, but what most bound us was mutual ambition. We wanted agents. We wanted publishers. We argued about whether Ann Beattie’s tiny sentences were genius or a gimmick. It was an anxious, insecure era, for neither of us was guaranteed to ever see our name on a hardback. Yet in one’s twenties, a friend who shares the same vision is fortifying—right up until your fates threaten to get out of sync.

A little older and already married, N dished out a great deal more advice than she took. She was an attractive, angular woman with whirlwind energy and a distinctive slam-bam quality that extended beyond her whoosh-whoosh production of manuscripts; slash-slash, chop-chop, she could mix a tuna salad in 90 seconds flat. Like so many New Yorkers, she saw a therapist, and expressed an eye-rolling knowingness about the deep, dark motivations that drove everyone she knew, her most common charge about other friends that they were hopelessly “competitive.”

Given her prolificacy, perhaps justice would dictate that N would get an agent first, and publish first. No doubt that’s how she saw it. But I wasn’t especially involved in this fairness issue, since matters suddenly started to go so swimmingly for me.

An editor at HarperCollins had tried to buy my novel, which was encouraging, even if she failed to get the company on board. Three literary agents were bidding to represent me. For the aspirant nobody, this was heady stuff. After consulting a former teacher, an editor at the New Yorker, about which agents had good reputations, I naturally rang N. But when I noted that an agent who’d shown interest in N’s work was on the New Yorker’s B-list, N got frosty. The reasoning was a little skewed, but somehow by passing on someone else’s dissing of an agent who had liked N’s work, I had dissed N’s work.

“Frosty” was just the beginning. I sought N out in person to sort us out, and she screamed at me for an hour while I cried. Then the letters started. (God forbid how much more frenzied this epistolary onslaught could have become in the age of email.) Long ones. Going on for pages about what a terrible person I was, every confidence I’d ever shared sharpened into a machete. N’s husband sent letters, equally insulting, and we barely knew one another. I’m sure those letters are still in a box somewhere, which is where they can stay.

Fifteen years later, I was picking the dried sour cherries from the fruit plate at a literary party in Manhattan when I looked up and my heart rate doubled. I felt a bit sick. A few feet away, nattering ebulliently, was N.

While I was debating whether to make a quick exit, she saw me—acting delighted to meet again. The only reference she made to the barrage of hate mail was, “Oh, that all seems a long time ago.” It seemed like yesterday to me, which is why I instantly felt small, cringing, and inarticulate. When I said in all sincerity, “Wow, physically you’ve hardly changed!” (she did look terrific), she batted the compliment away. “You just think that because we’ve aged together.”

But we hadn’t aged together. N had made sure of that.

We exchanged email addresses, I imagined purely for form’s sake, so I was surprised that N soon availed herself of mine. She wanted to meet for lunch. I allowed that I was game, but my openness never extended to an exact date. I kept remembering my metabolic reaction to setting eyes on her. N still frightened me witless. Though she was persistent, I continued to be mysteriously unavailable—I might have been giving her lessons in this-is-how-grown-ups-retreat-from-friendships—and finally, to my relief, she gave up.


Yet the second savage split was still more wounding. S and I were running buddies in high school. Everyone loved S in those days, so why should I be an exception? Cute, with bright bow-tie lips, full cheeks, and a spatter of freckles, she’d an unconstrained hoot of a laugh and a punny sense of humour that only S could get away with. Warm, gregarious, smart, and hilarious, she drew a retinue the size of half our sophomore class. I admit it: I adored her. Far too serious in adolescence myself, I was dazzled by her uninhibited effervescence and riotous sense of fun. But S could be serious as well, her depth of feeling derived in part from having been fat as a child. She’d walked on the other side. She hadn’t always been this popular.

I kept up with S with determination. She went to university in Wisconsin, where I visited her from New York. Once she moved to Napa Valley, I travelled to California to catch up about once a year. One of those visits in my mid-thirties tripped a detonator.

I was leaving the next day, and we’d just driven up in her van to her funky clapboard with its fruiting fig tree. Making no move to get out, S looked to her hands as it all disgorged in a gush: I was always saying how much she and I had in common, said S, but honestly she couldn’t see it. She found me “arrogant,” “self-absorbed,” “judgmental,” and—the ultimate clincher, from S—“humourless.” I was stunned. What made matters worse: there was a grain of truth in these invectives. Likewise her aversion to my screwed-up relations with men was entirely justified.

As a package, the message was stark. One of my oldest friends didn’t like me. And probably never had. Mixed with the sting of her renunciation was humiliation. Clearly I had misread the signals from day one, starting in my sophomore year of high school. I had tagged after her like a pest. My visits, to Wisconsin, to Napa, had been unwelcome—so unwelcome that S had finally lost it. Anything to get these awful impositions to stop.

Well, they stopped. Although S recanted her lambaste in a phone call two months later, I wasn’t about to risk another trip to Napa Valley. Surely there was still a high likelihood that the antipathy spewed in that front seat was the truth. We dropped from each others’ lives.

Seventeen years later, in 2007, I was on an author’s tour for my eighth novel, and had a gig in a bookstore on the outskirts of San Francisco. Before my event, the manager handed me a card. It was from S. She apologised that she couldn’t come to my reading, but asked if I had time to have dinner, including her email address and a mobile number.

I’d been here before, right? I could fob her off with “maybe next time,” just as I had with N. I’d plenty of other friends, none of whom had strafed my whole character. These are the “frenemies” that therapists advise one to purge.

But I wasn’t in therapy. I rang the number.

We had a wonderful dinner and killed a bottle of wine. We talked out what happened in 1990. As I’d known at the time, during my final visit to Napa her beloved older brother had been dying of melanoma, subjecting her to an anguish I wasn’t then equipped to handle. I probably wasn’t much help, and she’d taken her grief out on me. Even now I suspect her exasperations with me were genuine, but, hey—I can be arrogant, self-absorbed, judgmental and humourless. Yet despite my shortcomings, she loved me. I loved her as well, and still do. We’ve reconnected since, and S visited for a week in New York this last summer—after which I asked my husband if he liked her. He responded with indignation, “Well, who wouldn’t?”

Many years after each rupture, why did I gladly patch things up with S, while with N I passed? S had indulged a single outburst; N had engaged in a sustained hate campaign—and even the law distinguishes between crimes of passion and premeditation. Neither in person nor in emails did N ever acknowledge having done me any harm; S apologised profusely, and addressed our rift. And I have some modest influence in the world of letters. Having then just published her first novel, N may have been shopping for Aristotle’s friendship of “utility,” her let’s-have-lunch emails driven by Aelred’s “hope of gain.” Whereas S, an accomplished chef, wouldn’t reap anything from our restored friendship besides the odd free hardback, which she would more than repay with great recipes and little presents of fennel pollen and powdered Portobello.


By the time of his death at 96, my paternal grandfather was bereft. Oh, he still had family—my father, my aunt, and seven grandchildren. But they didn’t understand him completely, nor he them. He missed his friends. When his last friend died, he was ready to go. So for my own old age, I hope to store up plenty of companions in advance, like stacking a bomb shelter with tinned beef stew.

Yet this ambition to stock up is thwarted by the befuddling difficulty of making new friends now that I’m in my fifties. Extending that first come-hither somehow seems more drastic than when I was younger, and even when we get past the first dinner date one or the other party will often drop the ball. Usually not out of uninterest, either, but from simply not having enough time and emotional energy to keep up with the friends we already have. Making and keeping new comrades in later adulthood requires a doggedness, because it’s so easy to fall back on your traditional stable and let the new friends—who are slightly harder work—slip out the gate. Thus the two or three solid, permanent additions to my little network in the last few years have filled me with not only joy, but triumph.

Friendship may readily foster forgiveness, a quality of which I take full advantage by disappearing with impunity on even close friends for months at a time. But as N illustrates, that forgiveness isn’t limitless, and I shouldn’t expect to rock up after 15 years of total silence and announce, “My husband is dead now. Can we pick up where we left off?” Nevertheless, my reunion with S suggests that friendships are remarkably mendable, and my really old ones are lumpy with darns.

Yet what strikes me most about both traumatic break-ups is the shock of their intensity. Romantic love gets more than its share of focus, in art and real life; in most plots, friends don’t play leads. But deep friendship is a romance as well—capable of inflicting the same hurt, of inflaming the same passion.