I confess, this is pure sentiment on my part. I’ve had an emotional time in which I have been hugely grateful for my friends. They sustain me. This week I’ve been on a writing retreat with several of them, and they were stars. When asked, they gave me constructive suggestions. If necessary, they took the piss out of me. We laughed lots.
And they all held out a hand when I needed that, too.
So I started thinking about friends in books. It is not a genre that bookshops recognise. But it’s a quality that always enhances a book and often endears it to the reader.
Blessed Bertie Wooster is not just a silly ass, but a chap who touches your heartstrings for exactly that reason. He sets out his stall in Right Ho, Jeeves. “Gussie and I, as I say, had rather lost touch, but all the same I was exercised about the poor fish, as I am about all my pals, close or distant, who find themselves treading upon Life’s banana skins.” Ah yes. A chap one can rely on. Definitely hero material. I knew there had to be a reason why I’ve always loved him so much.
Books with Friends by Jane Austen
Isabella Thorpe is definitely a Bad Influence in Northanger Abbey. Lizzie is judgemental and unkind when poor Charlotte Lucas decides to marry Mr Collins. She thinks her friend has “sacrificed every better feeling for worldly advantage” and, by golly, it shows. A right sniffy Madam is Miss Eliza Bennett, if you look at her the wrong way.
And snobbish but well-meaning Lady Russell’s effect is positively malign, when she pushes young Anne Eliot to reject the naval officer with whom she is clearly in love.
Books with Friends by Katie Fforde and Liz Fielding
In romantic fiction of all types, there is a long standing tradition of the friend to whom our heroine or hero can pour out the secrets of the heart. Or, alternatively, go out for a night on the town with, when crossed in love.
But friends in books can sometimes make up the whole world of the story. I still remember reading my first Katie Fforde and just basking in the affection and companionship of the heroine’s friends. Even those she was a bit doubtful about at the beginning came through for her in the end.
And in Liz Fielding’s lovely new story, the romantic relationship is inextricable from the couple’s past as childhood friends.
That is where the characters’ conflict is rooted. And this is not some casual offence or misunderstanding because they are too stupid to live and never bothered to ask each other to explain. It’s real and so are the scars it has left. They are both competent, decent people, but it will be painful to get past those scars. At one point it looks almost impossible.
So the old friendship has somehow to be transformed into the new relationship. And it’s not easy. Great book – I shed tears.
Books with Friends by Lesley Cookman and Sarah Paretsky
In fact, I might go so far as to say that crime stories without friends in the mix are all too frequently the sort of creepy stuff that gives me nightmares. The sort, indeed, that I’ve now decided I won’t read any more.
Lesley Cookman’s Libby Serjeant series is an absolute celebration of friendship, with a multi-generational cast of recurring characters who squabble, tease, support, laugh at each other’s foibles, and dig each other out of holes when the sleuthing gets dangerous. All in the sort of perfect seaside retreat that is just lovely to occupy for as long as the book lets you. Steeple Martin, I love you.
Sarah Paretsky’s cast is smaller, harder, and not as funny. But then V I Warshawski is a tough-minded woman who doesn’t often need rescuing. In fact, it would be a brave friend who teased V.I. except on one of her very good days.
On the other hand V.I. herself is an excellent and engaged friend, with a strong moral code that her friends generally share. Like Bertie Wooster, she is always ready to step up to the plate for her pals, too.
And her lakeside Chicago – delineated with quite as much love as Cookman’s Steeple Martin – is maybe not so endearing but equally full of vitality.
Friends in Books – a Necessary Delight
Friends in books are often regarded as “minor characters”. I, however, like the wonderful Eva Ibbotson, don’t really consider any character minor. They just may not be in the spotlight in this particular novel.
That is never so true as when it comes to friends. Indeed, they may well be the heart of the world of the story. The main characters are probably well out of their comfort zone and doing stuff they don’t understand or possibly even like, and certainly for the first time. The Comfort Zone of the story, therefore, is where the friends live.
Good strong friends in a book enhance every dimension – and add a couple of their own. Magic!Sophie