“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

Last week I mentioned the indulgence of good friends, so this week I thought I would look at novels capturing female friendships. I’ll try and redress the balance at some point by looking at male friendships, but this week, in the words of Lesley Knope, its ovaries before brovaries 😀

My future - I sincerely hope

My future – I sincerely hope

Firstly, Animals, the second novel from Emma Jane Unsworth, described on the cover by Caitlin Moran as “Withnail with girls”, which pretty much sums it up. Laura lives with her friend Tyler, a one-woman tornado:

“She didn’t just change the temperature of rooms, she changed their entire chemical make-up so that anyone in the room would only be aware that the room was an extension of her and she was the thrumming nucleus.”

Tyler is indulgent, defensive, funny, clever – a total nightmare with whom Laura feels an immediate bond:

“Someone who sees right to your backbone and simultaneously feels their backbone acknowledged.”

But Laura is in love with Jim and is planning to get married, introducing a tension into the women’s friendship.  Tyler wants life to continue as it is, Laura is not so sure. It’s not plot-heavy, as Tyler and Laura ricochet from one substance-fuelled experience to another, it’s funny and sad and so very believable:

“And there it was, as always, swinging my way: The Night. With its deals, promises and gauntlets, by turns many things: nemesis, ally, co-conspirator, master of persuasion. It tosses its promises before you like scraps on the road, crumbs leading into the forest: pubs, parties, booze, drugs, dancing, karaoke…”

Amongst all this eventful partying, there is an elegiac quality to Animals: both the women are in their thirties and there’s a sense that their life together cannot continue for much longer, and that it might not be so entertaining if it did:

“Next to the sink, two folded banknotes balanced on a rung of the towel rail, drying. I stood and looked into the bowl before I flushed, recalling the adage of a girl I’d once worked with: White piss good; amber piss bad. Orwellian in its visceral simplicity. Meanwhile the liquid I had dispatched into the toilet bowl was almost ochre.”

A great film but not a wise lifestyle choice, kids

A great film but not a wise lifestyle choice, kids

The bawdy chaos of Animals is presented through considered, inventive storytelling; Unsworth’s voice is compelling and like Laura on a night out with Tyler, I found myself carried along for the ride.

Secondly, the publishing phenomenon that is Elena’s Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein, Europa editions 2012) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. This is the first in a quartet known as the Neapolitan novels which have sold millions worldwide, no doubt to the chagrin of authors everywhere stuck on a PR treadmill, as Ferrante remains determinedly anonymous. The novels detail the friendship between Elena and Lila from the 1950s onwards.

“She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.”

I’m grateful to Kate’s recent review which tempered my expectations somewhat. While I did like the novel, I think had I gone in with the astronomical expectations created by all the hype I would have been disappointed. As it was, I went in with moderate expectations and enjoyed being pulled into the poor Neapolitan neighbourhood Ferrante so vividly evokes. Elena summarises: “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.” She’s not wrong. Violence between strangers, friends and families seems to be constant. The poverty and accompanying lack of horizons takes its toll:

“At the Bar Solara, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights.”

Within this environment, Lila and Elena form a friendship that is full of the unspoken. Elena is mesmerised by Lila, who is tough, independent, and highly intelligent. Despite the time they spend together, the core of Lila – what she really wants, her hopes and dreams – remain mysterious to Elena.

“Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”

It is this competitiveness, this desire to be like Lila, which spurs Elena on, to the point where this motivation becomes indistinguishable from her own preferences. She continues at school long after Lila leaves, her academic commitment a mixture of wanting to outstrip Lila, wanting to do well because it is what Lila wants, and wanting to do well for herself. Ferrante has an excellent understanding of how these early friendships are so vitally important, how they form us in ways we barely understand and how quickly it is impossible to say what feels intrinsic to us and what is the influence of others. She captures the ambivalence of friendships that are formed out of deep love and conflict:

“When school started again, on the one hand I suffered because I knew I wouldn’t have time for Lila anymore, on the other I hoped to detach myself from the sum of the misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew, whom we loved, whom we carried – she, Pasquale, Rino, I, all of us – in or blood.”

While I’m not quite ready to proclaim myself a fully paid-up Ferrante acolyte, the quartet supposedly gets better as it goes along, so by book four I could well be (Marina Sofia has written a really interesting review of the quartet here).

To end, two celebrities (one of whom plays the aforementioned Lesley Knope) who claim to be BFFs and I actually believe them:

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26 thoughts on ““Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” (Groucho Marx)

  1. I haven’t read ‘Animals’, but your review has totally convinced me I need it in my life, if only to remind me to regularly check on the health of my pee. I agree that the Ferrante novels have been so hyped that it’s hard to approach without hugely inflated expectations. Luckily, when I read the first one I’d never heard of it, so it hit me like an exhilarating wave – the violence and the well observed complexities of friendship had me hooked from the off. Finally, that clip just made my day – squirm Hollywood, squirm! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’ll enjoy Animals, I look forward to hearing your thoughts 🙂

      I’m keen to read the rest of the Neapolitan quartet now – I’ve got the next one lined up on the TBR…

      Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are great aren’t they? Extremely near the knuckle 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s one of my favourite Groucho quotes! Your Ferrante review is very balanced – I confess I’m still a bit put off by the hype…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Golden Globes thing is fabulous! Love the bit about Clooney’s wife – mainly because he looks so gorgeous when he laughs! Oh, and because she’s such a fantastic person, too, of course… *practices sincere face*

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Both of these are on my TBR! I am actually going to Buddy read the Ferrante novel with a friend, and I’ll confess, I am afraid of the hype, so I’m going in with some caution. I can never get enough about books that portray female friendships. More need to be out there in my opinion. Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you enjoy them 🙂 If you go in to the Ferrante with caution I think you’ll enjoy it – worked for me!

      I totally agree – more books are needed about female friendships – hopefully Ferrante has shown there is appetite out there for the subject matter.

      I look forward to your reviews!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I’m looking forward to eventually reading the Neapolitan quartet – I just don’t know when. I will remember to temper my expectations.
    I completely agree with FF’s comment – the part about George Clooney and his wife was the best! There is not enough funny stuff to laugh at in my life, so it’s nice to have it put in front of me every once in a while. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Naomi! I did like the Ferrante, but I think tempered expectations is the way to go 🙂

      The bit about Clooney & his wife was spot on – and FF’s comment was brilliant 😀

      I’m so glad I’ve been a gateway for something to laugh at – I’ve been having a tough time myself lately & I highly recommend funny YouTube videos as a quick coping mechanism. I hope you find plenty of stuff to laugh at!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hooray! I’ve read both of the books you’ve reviewed. *sigh* so much love for this post.
    Firstly, I have a Golden Girls arrangement with a friend – we’ve pledged to flat together in our old age (after husbands drop off the twig, of course) and we’ve already set some ground rules, so that expectations are the same while we still have all our marbles 🙂

    Secondly, I loved Animals. My twenties wasn’t quite as drunk as those in the book but so much resonated about their situation – the odd time when some uni friends suddenly ‘grow up’and get their act together while others are still in student-mode – anyway, I thought Unsworth captured that extraordinarily well.

    Thirdly, thanks for the shout-out for Brilliant Friend. I’m still trying to decide if I push on to the next book. Not feeling enthused so considering it may be a good candidate for my newfound audiobook interest. The one aspect of Brilliant Friend that Ferrante did exceptionally well was the ‘frenemy’ thing, and she wove it into every interaction between the girls. That was terrific and probably the best example of frenemies I’ve come across in any book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is brilliant that you have a Golden Girls arrangement – I am so impressed! Also very wise to agree ground rules before marbles start slipping away…

      My 20s weren’t as bad as the ones in Animals either – I don’t think I would have survived (a day without veggies and I start looking grey and weird) but you’re absolutely right, there’s that transitional time end of 20s/early 30s where things can start to go awry with friends and battle lines can be drawn over desired alcohol consumption! Animals really captured the ‘sad but OK’ feel of it all.

      I’m so glad I read your review before reading the novel. There’s no way it could have lived up to expectations otherwise – a victim of its own success! I think they could work really well as audiobooks, it may be the way to go if you’re unsure whether to commit 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Our Golden Girls rules are detailed – apart from important stuff like having our own bathrooms we have other more important stuff sorted like 5pm gin and tonics, Gossip Girl re-runs and talking about what we’re reading (she happens to be my best reading-buddy).

        Going into the Ferrante, I had only read RAVE reviews, so I’m glad my review tempered your expectations. I didn’t hate it but I certainly didn’t find it completely absorbing as others did.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved Ferrante’s depiction of the neighbourhood in Naples – it felt so authentic. Interestingly, My Brilliant Friend divided opinions within my book group (more so than I had expected based on our previous discussions of other books).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, I thought the portrayal of Naples was brilliant – I really felt like I was there.

      That’s interesting that it divided your book group, I wouldn’t have expected that as generally it seems so widely loved.

      Like

  8. Nice to read your thoughts on Ferrante. I am still trying to decipher wht the hype is about, Maybe the books get better and better and the fourth one is an awesome one. I was fascinated because of the anonymity of the author. To think she (hopefully she not he) doesnt do any interviews and the like and still managed to make a mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • People who have read all four do seem to think they get better as they go along, so maybe that is why there is so much hype, I’m not sure. I do want to read the rest so I’ll find out!

      The anonymity is fascinating, in today’s publishing PR maelstrom where authors spend so much time on book tours/talks/twitter etc its great to see that someone can still do so well without going through all that.

      Like

  9. I haven’t read either one of these. As with many other overly hyped books, I’ll probably join the Ferrante party when the fever is not raging anymore. I just don’t think she can live up to my expectations at the moment (though I sincerely hope that I am underestimating her!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think its wise – far better to go in with moderate expectations and have a wonderful surprise! I’m not totally bowled over, but the quartet is supposed to get better & better so I may be a Ferrante fanatic by book 4!

      Like

  10. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  11. I love the Golden Girls! I love Lesley Knope!! I wish I knew Lesley, we’d be such good friends, regularly meeting up for waffles. I haven’t read either of those books as I’m dragging my feet about Ferrante but I will have to get Animal. Sounds great!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too, for both! I feel Lesley and I would definitely bond, even though I’m nowhere near as chipper (who is?) – I would have to be her world-weary friend, providing contrast to her never ending sunniness 🙂

      I dragged my feet over Ferrante too, its overwhelming when something’s that hyped. Animals is great, I hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

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