Appreciating the kind of love stories we really need
In Latin America, Valentine’s Day is commonly referred to as “El Dia del Amor y La Amistad,” which translates to Day of Love and Friendship. I have always loved that because in the United States, Valentine’s Day seems to be more about romantic love specifically, and not the equally powerful—sometimes even more life-changing—feelings that friendship can summon in a person. In the last few years, though, popular culture seems to have caught on that friendships deserve as much attention and care as romantic relationships, and that they deserve to be centered in the stories that we create and consume about ourselves as humans.
In the HBO show Insecure, about a bright young black woman in Los Angeles trying to figure herself out, the main character’s romantic relationships are certainly a key part of her journey. But as the show wrapped recently, what became clear was that Issa’s relationship with her best friend, Molly, was the true core of the show. In the second to last season, Molly and Issa experience a breakdown of their relationship. The show handles the emotional fallout deftly and with the same attention often only given to romantic breakups. Their reconciliation is the true happy ending.
I crave more stories like this and recently got my wish reading Fiona and Jane. In this debut novel by Jean Chen Ho, the friendship between the titular characters is the thread that holds the narrative together, even as romantic partners come in and out of their lives. (More on the book below.)
This is not to say, of course, that friendship is a new invention or that books and movies haven’t ever explored friendship as a concept or featured it as a central theme. What I mean is that when we talk about “love stories,” the love between friends isn’t what immediately comes to mind. The Carole King classic “You’ve got a friend” might not be considered a love song, but isn’t that exactly what it is? The love we give to and receive from friends is just as necessary and sustaining as the love that comes from romantic relationships. Indeed, the many people who choose to lead independent lives without marriage or romantic attachments might argue friends are even more important. I wouldn’t say they are wrong. Conversely, many happily married people would say friendship is the foundation of a good, lasting romance.
Friends are essential to a livable life. The absence of friends, the absence of a good support system, is at the root of so many fixable things for individuals who are struggling, communities that are struggling and just the world in general. To cite one example, writer and activist Liz Plank recently pointed out that for many of the young men who listen to Joe Rogan, his podcasts—full of misinformation though they may be—offer a kind of superficial friendship substitute. That loneliness can make someone vulnerable to this or any kind of toxicity is scary because making and keeping friends isn’t always easy.
Friendship, like most other life-sustaining things, requires care and care takes effort and who has the energy these days, am I right? The upside, though, is that in nourishing our friendships, we nourish ourselves. It’s the best kind of self-care there is. On Insecure, in fact, Molly and Issa did “Self-Care Sunday” together. We should all do the same. And we should all be so lucky.
So in the spirit of friendship, readers, I wish you all a belated Happy Day of Love and Friendship and share that memorable and timeless adage: A good friend will help you move. A best friend will help you move a body.
February Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save and American Neighborhood by Julian Rubenstein - A thorough, exceedingly well written, compelling look at what racism does to an individual, to a community, to a city.
Currently on my night stand
God of Mercy by Okezie Nwoka - I subscribe to a book club via Shelves Bookstore (Five stars, would highly recommend. Interested in joining? Tell Abby I sent you!) Here’s how it works: Reading Is a Lifestyle subscribers get one of three surprise selections every month and meet on Zoom to discuss, sometimes with the authors. I always enjoy the one that ends up in my mailbox, but I also get book envy when I see the other two selections I didn’t get. This book is one of those. I was slow to get into it, but the author has drawn me in slowly but surely.
The 12 Monotasks by Thatcher Wine - A self-help book of sorts about slowing down and doing one thing at a time. I have called myself a multi-tasker in many a resume and cover letter, and yet I have always resisted multi-tasking as a concept. Thatcher Wine, the author and an excellent name, is a friend of a friend and the book reads that way—like thoughtful advise from someone you know.
What the kids are reading these days
5 Worlds - The 10-year-old has read this series of graphic novels in fits and starts mostly because she still side-eyes anything potentially scary. She keeps coming back to them, though, so there’s clearly something here that’s enticing.
Gems, Nature’s Jewels: Topaz - The soon-to-be- 7 year-old picked this up from the school library. Like her older sister, she enjoys both an encyclopedia-like text and jewels.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - I am reading this aloud to my younger kiddo, slowly, which is allowing me to savor my absolute favorite of the series. Azkaban, for me, was when Harry (and the reader) began to experience the complications of being in a world that is full of people who can be both good and bad and the difference between who you are and how people perceive you.
Recently checked out from the library
Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann - Greek mythology within the dysfunction of smalltown Texas. Can’t wait to dive in.
Some good reads about friendship:
Swing Time by Zadie Smith - Read in 2017. Not a great book, but a great time.
I've heard wonderful things about Zadie Smith, so when this one showed up at my doorstep thanks to my book subscription service, I figured it was time to finally introduce myself to her. I'd also heard that White Teeth or On Beauty would have been better entryways into her work, but something about the story of two friends who loved dance intrigued me. And indeed, even now that I finished, the interplay between these friends, over a lifetime, is compelling in its complications and contradictions. Smith *knew* these girls. She was these girls. And so did/was I.
Still, I didn't love this book—it might even be fair to say I didn't like it all that much—but I love Zadie Smith. In Swing Time, Smith writes that in Astaire and Kelly's movies, the story didn't matter so much as the dancing. The story was the price you paid for the rhythm. So it is with this book. The story is the price we pay for the prose.
Despite how meandering this particular narrative is (her first with a first person narrator, apparently, and a frustrating, unlikeable one at that), her style comes through easily. Her writing is rich and dense, but also easy and recognizable. Throughout my reading of this book, I'd find myself rereading pages and paragraphs for anything I might have missed. The story is too long and spends too much time away from the relationship that is supposed to be driving it and with which Smith truly works her magic. But all that said, the reading of it was enjoyable. To use the parlance of the book: it's enjoyable like a Michael Jackson song you don't know the words or choreography to is enjoyable because it's still Michael Jackson.
Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho - Read earlier this month in a few days.
This story about best friends growing up, apart and back together is quick and affecting. The author weaves together the journeys of two Taiwanese women through time jumps that reflect the absences through which their friendship perseveres but that take some steam out of the story, particularly at the end. The book follows what seems to be a common trend of labeling as novels what could also be called a collection short stories, loosely connected. I particularly enjoyed Ho's attention to detail and the care with which she explores how Jane and Fiona's respective relationships with their mothers shape their experiences and their relationship, which features a relatable (if not always likable) push and pull that only people who have seen one another's worst and best can manage.
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet - One of my favorite books from last year.
I wasn't sure how I would feel about this book right up until the end, when—crying—I decided that I loved it. That's the best end to any reading journey and the reason I gave this book five stars. This moving story about an American boy whose parents whisk him away to East Germany in 1989, changing his name and age in the process, is a kind of spy novel/historical fiction thriller for kids. It's also a story of friendship that beautifully captures what it is like to see your small world change while the larger one is too and living through history knowing something big is happening but not quite understanding what it is.
There are pauses at the end of each chapter where the author breaks the fourth wall and offers a bit of historical context, and I first I didn't like them, fearing that they would continually take me out of the story. But as the novel moves along we learn that this fragmentation is how Noah himself organizes information in his intriguing mind.
People my age, who were the same age as the kids in the book during the fall of the iron curtain, might find it extra poignant now that we're parents. In fact, I questioned Noah's parents' choices throughout--which tells you how well Nesbet pulls us into the mind of Noah (aka Wallfish) who only begins to accept his new life when he meets Claudia (aka Cloud), who is living through her own trauma. This is a great book for anyone interested in this era of history or who needs the reminder that war also happens to children.
Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane - One of my favorite books from 2019.
This book may have benefited by coming after one I really disliked, but I enjoyed reading it so much, I didn’t feel like talking myself out of the fifth star. This story about a woman in her early forties who has leaned into her solitude after the death of her mother and decides to reconnect with her old friends really hit a sweet spot for me. I, too, wish I could spend more time with the friends I was close with during formative years and often wonder whether I am a good enough friend, what the bounds of friendship are and what our current world has done to reconfigure them in the face of technology and supposed connectedness. What does it mean to enter back into someone’s space long after you stopped inhabiting it regularly. There are so many interesting questions raised here about connection and how women relate to each other and need from each other as their lives evolve. Honestly, this was just a great, comforting read that made me want to visit all my old friends.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin - This one is for younger readers, about the breakdown of a friendship and the mark loss leaves behind. Read in 2018.
This is a moving story about a girl coping with the loss of a girl who had once been her best friend and the loss of her own childhood and what happens when middle school blows up the simple, carefully structured patterns of childhood. Reading this as a mother of girls, and as a former awkward middle school girl, there was a lot that felt deeply and painfully familiar in this book. The author takes a short cut here and there. Teachers who are blind to the social dynamics of their students and outcasts ALWAYS suffering from curly/frizzy hair are cliches that make appearances here and would feel lazier if, on the whole, the main character wasn't so well drawn and if her emergence from the well of grief she is unknowingly caught in wasn't so well earned. The pain of loss is palpable in this book, but it's also real and relatable.
Books I decided to read (or remembered I wanted to read) while writing this post
Sula by Toni Morrison
On Beauty by Ann Patchett