I'm always searching for great books about female friendships so I was delighted to learn about the release of Between the Covers: The Book Babe's Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures (Da Capo Press, November 2008).
The authors, veteran book critics Ellen Heltzel and Margo Hammond -- a.k.a. The Book Babes -- have compiled a list of more than 500 books to help women find the perfect book for every mood and stage of their life. The book begins: "For book lovers, Paradise means getting between the covers. It means curling up with a good book, or just finding the right one on a bookstore or library shelf, or sharing a favorite with a friend." Clearly, these are two women who are voracious readers, and who love and appreciate books.
Dubbed the bibliophile's Ebert & Roeper, Heltzel and Hammon have organized their book into 55 lists, with ten books in each -- new books and old, fiction and non-fiction -- each list organized around a theme.
The book babies graciously agreed to develop a special list for my readers, the reviews of which are adapted from their new book. Between the Covers should be a reference book on every woman's bookshelf.
Ten Books About Female Friendship from The Book Babes
Female friendships can spring out of a variety of circumstances and show their strengths in many ways. The ten books that follow celebrate the rich bonds that women can forge.
A Community of Friends
1. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. The patriarchal plenitude of the Hebrew Bible inspires Diamant to read between the lines and flesh out the female counterparts. Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, gets passing mention in the Book of Genesis, but here she's elevated by fiction to a fully formed community that sits in "the ruddy shade of the red tent, the menstrual tent," where their timeless stories depict the rhythms of women's lives. Love and motherhood are part of the picture, but so are rape, revenge and betrayal, in tales that show how women hung together to endure the hardships of an often brutal world.
A Faithful Friend
2. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. In 19th century China, girls were paired together at a young age to provide companionship for each other throughout their lives. See's novel shows two of these "old sames," focusing on a narrator named Lily who marries well and obtains the trappings of her station. Not so for Snow Flower, her life partner, whose story drives home the oppressive conditions under which women lived. Lily remains faithful in spite of their diverging paths, recalling, "She was the only one who ever saw my weaknesses and loved me in spite of them."
Friends With a Common Enemy
3. A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini. Mariam is the first wife, cruelly pushed aside when she fails to produce an heir for her Afghani husband. Laila is No. 2, the younger and prettier arrival who also suffers at the hands of the man both women come to hate. In this novel, his second after the bestseller "The Kite Runner," Hosseini paints a picture of life under the Taliban that includes wife beating and childbirth without anesthetic as common practices. Meanwhile, Mariam and Laila demonstrate the kind of mutual devotion in which no sacrifice is too great.
Friends in Times of Grief
4. The Knitting Circle, by Ann Hood. The death of her 5-year-old daughter, Stella, sends the fictional Mary Baxter into the bleak state of sorrow that only a caring community can quell. By joining a group of women knitters, she finds this healing community, and in the process becomes acquainted with other kinds of suffering. Gradually she learns that, while there's no escape from sorrow, an open heart increases the capacity for joy. (Baxter is a stand-in for Hood, who subsequently wrote Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, the non-fiction version of what it meant to lose her young child.)
An Honest Friend
5. Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett. This prize-winning novelist takes time out from writing fiction to recall the strange and enduring friendship she formed with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, whose face was deformed by cancer that destroyed part of her jaw. As told in this loving but honest tribute, Grealy was the wounded bird who relied on Patchett to rescue her from the fallout of her reckless behavior. Grealy's death from an accidental heroin overdose in 2002 is a loss she still mourns: "Even when Lucy was devastated or difficult, she was the person I knew best in the world, the person I was the most comfortable with."
Friends Despite Great Differences
6. The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding, by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner. Can people of vastly different backgrounds get along? These three mothers -- all of different faiths -- say yes. After 9/11, they began to meet on a regular basis to talk about being Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Their freewheeling, no-holds-barred conversations, recorded here, included such sticky topics as who killed Jesus, what is jihad and religious stereotyping. Laughing, arguing and challenging each other, through their "faith club" they become friends.
Friends United By Pain
8. Nordie's at Noon: The Personal Stories of Four Women 'Too Young' for Breast Cancer, by Patti Balwanz, Kim Carlos, Jennifer Johnson, and Jana Peters. Here, four women are thrown together after receiving shocking news: All were 30 or younger when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Meeting at a Nordstrom café near their Kansas City homes, they became "bosom buddies," discussing treatment choices, family reactions, the role of faith and their attitudes toward death. (Patti's family finished her portion when she lost her battle at age 29.)
Friends as Caretakers
9. Talk Before Sleep, by Elizabeth Berg. Illness brings out the fierceness of female friendships like no other situation. In this novel about a woman dying of breast cancer, the focus is less on how Ruth copes with her disease than how her female friends do. Forming a support system, they bring her ice cream and lobster, fend off her heartless ex-husband and offer distracting conversation. Much to the dismay of her friends, Ruth eventually decides to spend her last days with her brother in Florida. When Ann, who narrates this tale, finally gets the call that her friend is gone, she hangs up and immediately makes another call. Halfway through dialing, she realizes whom she's calling: "Ruth, to tell her she died."
Friends of Different Ages
10. Great With Child, by Beth Ann Fennelly. Friendships between women of different generations can be invaluable. Here, a poet and mother writes to a former student who is pregnant to offer her support and advice. Her missives are alternately moving, funny and practical, with an unusual honesty about just how hard it is to be a young mother. Favorite line: 'What I want to say today, sweet friend, is no matter how busy you become as the mother of a newborn, make sure you read in a good book every day, even it's just for a few minutes."
More recommendations from The Book Babes can be found at their blog, www.thebookbabes.com.
'Friendship by the Book' is an occasional series of posts about books about female friendships that can be found on my friendship blog.
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships that will be published by Overlook Press in 2009. She just co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008).