During the summer of Ferrante fever, I had dinner with a friend with whom my relationship was decidedly on the rocks. The dissolution of our friendship began earlier that summer—a process that I thought was just the beginning of a break, not the actual end. We talked over a meal, catching each other up on our lives, which felt strange and stilted, only because the nature of our friendship had been so intimate. Most of the details of the dinner are lost to memory, but what I do recall is how we both discussed the Neopolitan novels, which we were both trying (and failing) to read.
Something about Ferrante’s books wasn’t resonating with me, but perhaps the cruelty of her characters hit too close to home. I remember we both told each other the books were not for us. At that moment, it was something we shared, clinging to it as a sort of hope for a future in which we could reclaim the kind of friendship that we used to have: Something that felt vital and important.
On the advice of many women whose opinions and judgment I respected, I tried reading the Ferrante novels on a brief vacation, hoping that the solitude of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against an empty, mid-week beach would be the environment I needed to fully immerse myself. I tried to maintain interest in the comings and goings of Elena and Lila, whose lives are just as complicated as the lives of women everywhere, but I ultimately lost the energy. Perhaps it’s because I have three sisters or perhaps because I wasn’t ready to see something that so closely mirrored my personal life. My desire to read about the casual cruelty of two women whose lives are linked by force and by circumstance was low; in preparing for this essay, I have begun the process again. So far, I’ve made it through the first three books and have only now begun to see the appeal that I missed. The strength of their friendship isn’t the draw—it is the depth and the nuances of their intimacy and how it allows for betrayal. Like a romantic relationship, a close friendship provides the tools needed to enact actual, lasting damage, but is made somehow worse by the simple fact that friends are supposed to accept you in spite of your faults.
During the year of Ferrante fever, the Neopolitan novels became a bellwether of this phenomenon—especially the kinds of female friendships that are obsessive and all-consuming. Ferrante’s novels jumpstarted a narrative that presented itself over and over again, in essays, and in television shows and movies like Doll and Em and Frances Ha. Women being friends with other women is not news, but the fervor with which art was created around this concept in such a short span of time feels remarkable—a corrective against Gone Girl’s “cool girl” shtick and the unbridled, desperate hedonism of the early 2000s, when Ariel Levy published Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, which identified the trend of women empowering themselves through wet t-shirt contests and self-objectification. Instead, these new fictional friendships were fierce and slavish in their devotion; the strength of the bond was unassailable.
Instead of being treated as anything other than a fairly standard interpersonal relationship, these fictions wielded friendship as a balm against the various horrors of the world: a salve for the psychic wounds left on the collective female soul by patriarchy and the most important relationships for women to cultivate and maintain. Strong friendships between women exist as counter-programming to that narrative. Thanks to shows like Girls and books like How Should a Person Be?, messy, complicated but ultimately enduring female friendships became a trend. Shine theory, as espoused by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, draws on the strength of friendship between women and uses it to harness more power: By befriending powerful, strong women that you admire, you ultimately level up by association. This theory is the capitalist embodiment of the myth of unyielding female friendships, but it’s also positive proof of their benefits.
What these cultural representations of female friendship lack are perspective. Friendships are messy and they are often unkind. They are certainly not forever. Like any relationship that eventually ends, there’s hurt, confusion, and lingering questions that will likely never be answered. The mention of a former friend in conversation will trigger emotions long buried after years spent diligently processing. The benefits of female friendships are undeniable, but the downside is the sense of brutal betrayal you feel when one ends.
My ex-friend is not the only meaningful female friendship I’ve had, but perhaps because of the timing, the loss was quietly devastating. She was my first post-college best friend—an iteration of friendship that we don’t hear much about, but is just as important as a childhood best friend or a pack of tight-knit, feral tween besties wandering the halls of middle school, united against the world. Making friends in a new city is hard; we were introduced by an old roommate and became close with a speed and a recklessness that was like the beginning stages of infatuation. Maybe the intensity of our friendship and its closeness was its downfall.
Our friendship met its demise slowly, over the course of a few years. It took me a while to realize that it was over, partially because the shock of its end was so great. Friendships end, but when they do, it’s supposed to be natural—growing apart because life wedges its way in between late night drinks and text message chains that read like a never-ending conversation—or the result of a massive rupture from which there is no return. The betrayal of our demise wasn’t because of the fact that it ended, but the way that it did. Much like a breakup from a romantic relationship, the end felt like it came out of nowhere and the reasoning seemed, at the time, to be arbitrary and otherwise unnecessarily cruel.
We were growing apart, but it seems I was ignoring the signs. With five years’ distance, I can now recognize my behavior and parse why it was I reacted the way I did—with hurt, with anger, and then eventually, with the unshakeable feeling that I desperately needed to change. My former friend simply came to that decision before I did, and wanted to make a clean, swift cut, to leave no scar.
Friendship is supposed to be forever, if you are a 13-year-old girl, pressing half of a “Best Friends” necklace into the sweaty palm of your forever friend. It is Anne Shirley’s desperate decree that Diana Barry is her “bosom friend” until the end of time. A relationship this intense is ultimately immature; children expect their friends to be there always, but adults understand that life occasionally interjects. Putting childish expectations on a friendship between two adults and then grappling with the fallout is messy, difficult work—easily preventable, but like with most heartbreak, hindsight is 20/20. Were there any representation of how one should act when a friendship dissolves, the pain of its end might be easier to swallow.
The fourth and final Ferrante novel sits on my bedside table and every night, I pick it up and consider whether or not I even want to finish. I am mildly curious to see how this entire saga plays out—ideally, there is a satisfactory answer as to why Lila is such a demon. My curiosity is piqued enough to want to give the conclusion a shot.
The last time I spoke to my friend was my birthday, when she texted me good tidings for the year. It was nice to hear from her and I felt pleasantly empty about our entire exchange. A month later, I texted her on her birthday, happy to return the favor.
She never responded.