With a Little Help From My Friends

by dhaaruni

I’m a girl who wouldn’t be where she is without the unconditional support from my female friends. I can’t bring myself to list them all because it hurts me to think about some of them and there are too many of them to count, but I wanted to write about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls From Corona del Mar because those relationships have been some of the most formative in my life. I’ve been very much in love before but when that went south it was the girls (and boys) who I platonically love who got me through it all.

Elena Ferrante is regarded as the foremost writer of female friendship today. I’ll be honest though, I read My Brilliant Friend and simply wasn’t driven to read the other novels in the Neapolitan series. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved Lila but at the same time, I found Elena herself almost mundane in comparison. People who are wiser than me love these books because apparently that’s reality- there are women who write and who get things done and there are the women who are written about. And I don’t know how I feel about that sentiment. Elena sometimes didn’t seem real to me, not a caricature exactly but rather a construction of what Ferrante believed a relatable protagonist was like. But I didn’t, I couldn’t relate to her. Instead I kept on wondering what was going on inside Lila’s head because she was both more ambiguous and yet, made more logical sense to me.

Ferrante writes:

“Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence. She knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences. In the end, people gave in, and were even, however unwillingly, compelled to praise her.”

I’m not going to come out and say that I’m a “Lila” and not an “Elena” because I’m not interested in simplifying the very complicated nuances of my personality to that degree but perhaps I am not the target audience for these novels or really for any novel. I’m too much, too intelligent, too self-aware, too beautiful to be thinking so much, or at least that’s what the boys say. The thing is, girls like Lila aren’t supposed to waste their time reading novels written about them because they’re like Chuck Bass, “People like me don’t read books, they’re written about.” But as somebody with such a profound level of anxiety, I can’t help but be obsessed with what people are saying about me. Do they want me? Do they love me? Do they understand me? Sadly enough, the answer to all those questions is usually no, but at the same time, they love watching me because I’m entertaining, funny without meaning to be. I’m a show, not a person and that makes me strangely sad but I’ve learned to embrace it to some degree.

I think that the value in the Neapolitan novels isn’t in the characterization itself though but on the observations that Ferrante makes about society and its structure. Italy in the 1970s is a different world than what we live in today but some things remain the same. My favorite quote from the novel is as follows:

“They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”

I really value women’s anger but Ferrante is unequivocally right. We have been stifled and put down for literally thousands of years we’ve been forced to learn to fight in different ways. Addison Montgomery says it in Grey’s Anatomy: “Oh I intend to fight like a girl. I’ll let them kill each other and then I’ll be the only one left standing.” Things are different if we want to be successful and well, alive and thriving as women. We don’t want to abandon our gender but at the same time, we want to be taken seriously. It’s a conundrum faced by our foremothers and unfortunately, I’m no closer to finding an answer to the problem than they were.

The Girls From Corona Del Mar is in a way an answer to the Neapolitan novels but it’s different, and in my opinion, simpler but harder than them as well. I mean it’s possible to sum it up as two girls’ coming of age story but it’s also just wrong to do so. I preferred the beginning of the novel to the end but at the same time, looking at the novel as an entity I become much sadder than I was as I read it. I don’t really know why that is. Mia and Lorrie Ann are both relatable in different ways and at times, as the reader, I wanted to grab them both by the shoulders and shake them because what they were doing made no logical sense. I’m especially referring to Mia’s abortion but also the events leading up to it. As with many other books featuring young girls, I wrung my hands at their life decisions because in my mind, so much of their pain could have been avoided if they just sat down and thought about what they were going to do before doing it. But then, on retrospect, their age played such a huge role in the events in their lives I was perhaps judging them too harshly.

Lorrie Ann in particular though struck me as somebody who was old from a young age, someone who never got the chance to grow up properly. As it says,

“It wasn’t that Lorrie Ann was becoming a Goody Two-shoes. It wasn’t that she wanted to be perfect or loved or approved of. No.

She wanted something much more dangerous. She wanted meaning. And she thought it could be gotten by following the rules.”

That particular passage was something I marked because I’m the same way although I’m disinclined to respond the same way. I became self-destructive in my search for meaning. I drank a lot, I smoked cigarettes, and I didn’t love myself because I didn’t see the point of it. Nowadays, I’m different, more solid and safe but not the least bit complacent and I like who I’ve become. But I had the chance to grow up because I didn’t do anything unfixable like Lorrie Ann did; I could erase my past mistakes and start all over, which is what I’m in the process of doing. The fact remains though, I’m still in search for meaning and I’m scared that if I think too deeply again like I used to, I will revert to my past antics and so, I refrain from thinking too deeply. I put my nose to the grindstone, I work and I work and I work, I don’t think if I can avoid it about what I can’t understand, and things are okay. They have to be.

Female friendship is such a complicated topic and it’s been discussed to excess in recent times. Everybody and their mother has an opinion on Taylor Swift’s squad (I couldn’t care less who she chooses to be friends with and I refuse to put effort into evaluating whether her friendships are calculated), on the nature of cliques and what it all means for feminism. But I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy lately and in my opinion, nothing exemplifies true friendship more than the relationship between Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang. They’re each other’s person, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Real friendship is simple, like real romantic love is as well. Everything else than isn’t real friendship, or real love is what’s complicated and what makes us fixate and obsess to an extreme degree. In the words of Jacob Clifton,

“Real love doesn’t make you act crazy. The reason we act crazy when we are infatuated is because we want it to be real so badly — we want to jump over the distance of time that makes real love what it is. That’s the trick of romance: The crazy infatuation love is so much brighter and turns so many more corners so quickly. Much more exciting than the real thing. But real love, at its finest, makes you feel like you are bursting open, like this: Like hearing a beautiful song, or reading a beautiful poem, or hearing a wonderful story, and the tears come and you don’t know precisely why. It doesn’t hurt; it hurts in a way that isn’t hurting, that we don’t have a word for. Largeness. Enormity. It takes a real strength, a real grace, to stand up straight in the face of that. Especially if you’re not familiar with it.”

If I remember right, Clifton is talking about Blair Waldorf and Serena Van Der Woodsen, another example of true love. Or friendship or whatever, since they’re basically the same thing when it comes down to it. But honestly, what I’m trying to say here is that as a species, we seem to overcomplicate this whole friendship thing, and I’m including authors like Ferrante and Thorpe in this. There can be relationships between complicated women that are simple, rooted in love and in nothing else. And I don’t know why everything has to be analyzed to death in order to be considered valid.

But I ask you to consider, what makes female friendships tick? From Meredith and Cristina to Carrie and Samantha to Blair and Serena, why are they so important to us and why do we believe that they say so much about society as a whole? Even Jane Austen said that friendship is the only balm to the pangs of disappointed love but is that what all our female friends are good for? To bitch about the boys who don’t love us? I’m over simplifying but you know what I mean.

All I know is that I love my girls to an extreme degree. I can tell them anything, their approval is more important to me than the approval of men, even men whom I love, and my relationships with them are forever. We can not talk for months on end, and it’s all okay in the end and I have faith in those relationships. But I feel as if I need to be more complicated sometimes as a woman, as if I’m behaving more like a stereotypical guy. To me though, it’s simple: love and let love. And that’s that.