What claims do friendships retain, as family life takes over? How much do we live in our friends’ shadows, comparing our relationships, jobs and versions of motherhood? These were questions I asked myself, getting divorced in my late 30s just before having my second child. I was used to turning to my husband for practical help; seeking help from friends feels awkwardly regressive when you’re not used to it, and burdensome when they’re caught up in childrearing. As I emerged out of the turbulence of my 30s, I asked myself what remained of earlier friendships, and chided myself for allowing so many to take on sparse outlines, structured by occasional catch-ups rather than continuing shared experience. It was hard to know who to ask to come round when I was ill, to look after the baby when I was desperate for sleep, or just to leave their family for an evening when I hadn’t spoken to another adult for days.
Anxiously grateful for the friends who were there, sad about the ones who weren’t, I sought out fictional friends. I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, glad when Lila and Lenu’s bond reignites during Lenu’s single motherhood, curious about how much more alive their friendship seems than their marriages. There’s always been an element of friend-making for me in reading, though the writers I love are as maddening, as disquietingly alien as actual friends.
Woolf thought that among friends we can tesselate to form “the body of the complete human being we have failed to be”
I was drawn especially to novels about groups. For many of us, TV shows about groups allow the peculiar escapism of joining a circle more consistently funny and interesting, more affectionate, and just more likely to turn up every day than our actual friends. Watching Friends, Sex and the City, Motherland, Big Little Lies, Sex Education (acquiring a set of teenage friends is confusing for the middle-aged) we feel ourselves to be one of the group. I found this too in my discovery, at this time, of Mary McCarthy’s generation-defining 1963 novel. The Group was so satisfactory, yet so unrepresentative of my particular just-pre-millennial London world, that it made me want to write my own.
I liked McCarthy’s novel for its combination of ethnographic distance and intimacy. When she began writing fiction, McCarthy was well-known as the sleek grandee of the magazine world. She decided to try writing novels in her essayistic voice, and in The Group she chronicled her own generation from Vassar, her elite women’s college. She was interested, she said, in the lack of progress made by generations. Why were these women still skivvying for their husbands, still pretending to be less intelligent and sexually curious than they really were, still giving up careers for motherhood? Why, she reminds us to ask now, are we still beset by precisely these questions today?
For Candace Bushnell, who was inspired by McCarthy to write Sex and the City, “The Group reminds us that not much has really changed.” In 1963, The Group had a shocking intimacy, which still grabs me. When we see Dottie losing her virginity to a man, we see the sparse drops of blood emitted on the sheet (is it enough, she wonders) and feel the shudder of her first orgasm (“she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups, the moment they were over, for it was as if she had forgotten Dick as a person”), and then see the whole agonising quest for contraception.
Looking back to the generation before McCarthy, we find a great group novel in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Woolf herself committed to friendships with an energy that feels appealing and impossible in our frenetic modern age. She and her sister Vanessa Bell and their friends did away with the tyranny of family life, creating a community forged around friendship. Alone with my baby, I envied their world, thinking of Bell, raising her children in their farmhouse, painting, cooking, surrounded by friends and lovers, even while I remembered how confusing these arrangements could be for the children involved. Woolf was indebted, like the rest of Bloomsbury, to GE Moore, whose philosophy was built on an idea of friendship as among “the most valuable things which we can know or imagine”. Woolf wanted to make out of The Waves a testament to the friendships she had relied on, to the feeling that among friends we can tesselate to form “the body of the complete human being whom we have failed to be”.
She did this by telling their story as monologues, somewhere between thought and speech. The six friends speak to us directly, first childishly, and then more wearily. There is less satire and less ethnography here than in McCarthy’s novel, and more symbolism; a generation rises and falls alongside the sun and the tides. “We melt into each other with phrases,” says Bernard; “we are edged with mist.” This merging is a pleasure of friendship, but there’s a fear here that they might cease to be individuals as they blend into each other and the natural world.
It may not be a coincidence that many of the best group novels involve the death of one of the characters. It’s a chance for the rest of the friends to confront themselves as a group, and a chance for them to expose truths they have previously needed to hide. McCarthy’s novel ends with the death of Kay, who we saw getting married at the start. “God’s bowels, how tired I was of the ‘group’ before I was through!” says her ex-husband Harald at the funeral, talking about her college friends. He is tired, as Kay herself sometimes was, of their tendency to envy, pity and judge. And he’s tired, too, of their more affirmative qualities: their capacity to support each other. Without them, Kay might have allowed him to gaslight her, accepting his allegation, when he sent her to hospital with a black eye, that she had perpetrated the injury herself. Perhaps she would have continued to believe that his philandering was excused by his genius.
Kay’s friends gave her the confidence to end her marriage, but they didn’t save her from the fall (or was it a jump?) from a window that followed. As she is buried, they ask themselves if they should have taken more responsibility for her happiness. In The Waves it’s Rhoda’s suicide that really brings out for her friends how perilous the pleasures of group life are. You depend on each other but you don’t have the power to keep each other alive. There’s a suicide, too, at the heart of one of the most powerful recent novels of group life, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.
Yanagihara’s novel is about four male friends who meet, like McCarthy’s group, as college roommates and then move together to New York. There’s Willem, the perfect-faced actor; JB, the wilfully bohemian painter; Malcolm, the black architect who worries he’s too privileged to be black; and Jude, the clever, damaged man who bears the scars of physical and sexual abuse, and whom his friends attempt to keep safe in the face of his disabilities (his leg injuries cause agonising pain) and tendency to self-harm. It’s true so often that we’re brought together with our friends by pleasure, but that what really binds us is pain. This novel is about the discovery of that, and the perilous but sometimes incandescent closeness that results.
More than any other novel I’ve read, A Little Life makes an explicit, powerful case for friendship, and for not seeing coupledom as mattering more. Most novels that follow groups of friends through life show them splitting into couples as they grow older. In Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which follows a group of friends from teenage summer-camp into middle age, Jules minds the way that “the minute you had children, you closed ranks”, turning group life into occasional meetings between families.
Meg Wolitzer’s characters challenge definitions of friendship, allowing the word 'friend' to take on more possibility
In Yanagihara’s novel, this doesn’t happen. By composing her group mainly of gay men, she creates a world less driven by procreation. At first, this is seen as juvenile. When Jude and Willem live together in their 20s, Malcolm’s father criticises them for failing to grow up. “Why,” Willem wonders, “wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property.”
Wolitzer’s characters, too, challenge definitions of friendship, allowing the word “friend” to take on more possibility than it usually has. Jules finds that “friend was encompassing, and here it encompassed too much”. Yanagihara’s characters are able to live this encompassment. At the happiest point of A Little Life, Willem decides that Malcolm’s father is right that they’ve indulged in an “extended slumber party” for three decades, but that it gives him the “thrilling feeling that they had gotten away with something large”, because they have found an alternative structure in which to live.
It is years since I started to read novels of group friendship so needily. My daughter will soon turn three; my own group novel has just come out. But I’ve returned to thinking about them during the lockdown, wondering how those precarious constellations of need and responsibility would hold up while being ushered into our separate households. It has been hard, during the pandemic, to be told that the way to be responsible for our friends is to stay away from them. I have worried that I am alone among my group in thinking that this may not be the best course of action to avoid suffering. I have minded, during these weeks, seeing friends retreat gladly into the bubbles of their family lives, while fearing for the women for whom there is more physical danger in the home than in the infected world outside.
I have retreated into a non-nuclear bubble of two households, with two children passed between them. Living alongside my new partner, it has been in many ways a relief to take refuge once again in the safety of coupledom where the mutuality of need can be assumed, and to give up on the confusing imbalances of friendship. There is pleasure in knowing that there is one person to turn to when you need to be made to laugh, think or cry. But I have wondered how the characters in The Waves would have done this, or McCarthy’s women, or Yanagihara’s men. Would they have found ways to be more collective? And I hope now that we don’t come away fearing each other’s germs, our contamination by each other’s bodies and minds. I hope that new forms of friendship emerge out of this era, and new novels to write them.
• Lara Feigel’s The Group is published by John Murray.