10 Books Capturing the Complexities of Enduring Friendships

July 28 2022
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International Friendship Day is right around the corner! Take this opportunity to book-club some brilliant reads with your besties. Why not start with these ten titles, all of which are about the joys, challenges, and nuances of long-enduring friendships. These novels track bonds that change lives, for the better or for worse, examining both its life-giving potential and its dark, acidic underbelly. From haunting meditations on the connections that never release us, to celebratory and poignant portraits of those relationships that have made us who we are, these reads capture the range of what friendship can mean.

East of the Sun
by Julia Gregson

In this cinematic bestseller that explores the world of Bombay socialites, three young women are headed to India in 1928. Rose is a naïve young woman on her way to marry a man she barely knows. Victoria is her maid of honor and cannot wait to be free of her hovering mother in order to find herself a man. And Viva, their chaperone, is eager to return to the India of her childhood, where she harbors memories of freedom and ghosts alike.

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East of the Sun
Julia Gregson

For some lighter fare, try this tale of three young Englishwomen on their way to a new life in India during the 1920s. From the parties of wealthy Bombay socialites to the poverty of Tamarind Street, from the sooty streets of London to the genteel conversation of the Bombay Yacht Club, this is a book that has it all: glorious detail, fascinating characters, and masterful storytelling.

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The Eight Mountains
by Paolo Cognetti

A compact coming-of-age story about male friendships, THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS is perfect for fans of Paulo Coelho. Pietro lives in Milan with his distant parents and longs for connection. That is, until he meets Bruno, an adventurous local boy whom he comes across one day while on vacation in the Aosta Valley. Over the summers, they spend hours exploring the mountains that surround Italy and share their perspective and experiences. And while their connection is strong, their bond continues to be tested as their lives lead them to opposite ends of the world.

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The Eight Mountains
Paolo Cognetti

*The book that inspired the film Le Otto Montagne*

For fans of Elena Ferrante and Paulo Coelho comes a moving and elegant novel about the friendship between two young Italian boys from different backgrounds and how their connection evolves and challenges them throughout their lives.

“Few books have so accurately described the way stony heights can define one's sense of joy and rightness...an exquisite unfolding of the deep way humans may love one another” (Annie Proulx).

Pietro is a lonely boy living in Milan. With his parents becoming more distant each day, the only thing the family shares is their love for the mountains that surround Italy.

While on vacation at the foot of the Aosta Valley, Pietro meets Bruno, an adventurous, spirited local boy. Together they spend many summers exploring the mountains’ meadows and peaks and discover the similarities and differences in their lives, their backgrounds, and their futures. The two boys come to find the true meaning of friendship and camaraderie, even as their divergent paths in life—Bruno’s in the mountains, Pietro’s across the world—test the strength and meaning of their connection.

“A slim novel of startling expansion that subtly echoes its setting” (Vogue), The Eight Mountains is a lyrical coming-of-age story about the power of male friendships and the enduring bond between fathers and sons. “There are no more universal themes than those of the landscape, friendship, and becoming adults, and Cognetti’s writing becomes classical (and elegant) to best tell this story…a true novel by a great writer” (Rolling Stone Italia).

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The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See

The daughter of a Japanese collaborator, Mi-ja, and the daughter of a famed Korean diver, Young-sook, have always been drawn to each other. Despite their differences in personality and backgrounds, they both join Young-sook’s mother’s diving collective as soon as they are old enough. The community becomes their foundation through World War II, the Korean War, and the aftermath of these conflicts, all of which threaten to pull them apart. In THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, bestselling author Lisa See depicts two childhood friends pushed to the limits by national trauma.

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The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

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Fellowship Point
by Alice Elliott Dark

Before she dies, aging children’s book author Agnes Lee is determined to protect her beloved childhood peninsula of Fellowship Point in Maine, but to do so, she must convince shareholders—including her best friend, Polly—to dissolve a generations-long partnerships. Polly’s loyalties are split between the wishes of her sons and her best friend, even while Polly herself isn’t sure what she wants. As a young editor convinces Agnes to write a memoir, secrets from the past begin to surface that will impact them all in this complex and intricate novel of women’s lives.

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Fellowship Point
Alice Elliott Dark

The masterful story of a lifelong friendship between two very different women with shared histories and buried secrets, tested in the twilight of their lives, set across the arc of the 20th century.

Celebrated children’s book author Agnes Lee is determined to secure her legacy—to complete what she knows will be the final volume of her pseudonymously written Franklin Square novels; and even more consuming, to permanently protect the peninsula of majestic coast in Maine known as Fellowship Point. To donate the land to a trust, Agnes must convince shareholders to dissolve a generations-old partnership. And one of those shareholders is her best friend, Polly.

Polly Wister has led a different kind of life than Agnes: that of a well-off married woman with children, defined by her devotion to her husband, and philosophy professor with an inflated sense of stature. She exalts in creating beauty and harmony in her home, in her friendships, and in her family. Polly soon finds her loyalties torn between the wishes of her best friend and the wishes of her three sons—but what is it that Polly wants herself?

Agnes’s designs are further muddied when an enterprising young book editor named Maud Silver sets out to convince Agnes to write her memoirs. Agnes’s resistance cannot prevent long-buried memories and secrets from coming to light with far-reaching repercussions for all.

Fellowship Point reads like a classic 19th-century novel in its beautifully woven, multilayered narrative, but it is entirely contemporary in the themes it explores; a deep and empathic interest in women’s lives, the class differences that divided us, the struggle to protect the natural world, and, above all, a reckoning with intimacy, history, and posterity. It is a masterwork from Alice Elliott Dark.

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith

Two young mixed-race girls meet and become friends in a tap class as children. But while the unnamed narrator of SWING TIME has theories about the world and music, it is her friend Tracey who has a talent for dance. After an intense and volatile friendship, the two split in their early twenties, never to be friends again but never to forget each other either. A literary tour-de-force that is both intimate and kaleidoscopic in scope, this portrait of female friendship is renowned writer Zadie Smith at the height of her talents.

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Swing Time
Zadie Smith

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Yours Cheerfully
by AJ Pearce

In this vividly depicted historical fiction read, it is 1941 in London. Emmy has just landed a job as the new wartime advice columnist for Woman’s Friend magazine. But her best friend, Bunty, is still recovering from the worst of the Blitz. The Ministry of Information has asked women’s magazines to recruit their readers for the war effort, and Emmy thinks she’s ready to help. When a mother shows her what women recruits are really up against, Emmy must struggle between her responsibility to her country and her love of her friends.

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Yours Cheerfully
AJ Pearce

From the author of the “jaunty, heartbreaking winner” (People) and international bestseller Dear Mrs. Bird comes a charming and uplifting novel set in London during World War II about a plucky young journalist and her adventures as wartime advice columnist.

London, November 1941. Following the departure of the formidable Henrietta Bird from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the new challenges as a wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, is bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young mother who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must confront a dilemma between doing her duty and standing by her friends.

As funny, heartwarming, and touching as Dear Mrs. Bird, Yours Cheerfully is an endearing portrait of female friendship and “a fruitful exploration of the solidarity among women in times of grief, love, and hardship” (Publishers Weekly).

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The Chosen
by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age classic considers how to discover who you are meant to be as you expand your world and question your faith. Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders have lived just five blocks away from each other for years. But it isn’t until a softball game in the spring of 1944 that they finally meet. As an unexpected friendship blossoms between the two boys—one a secular all-American teen and the other a student training to become a Hasidic rebbe—their beliefs, worlds, and families will be tested.

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The Chosen
Chaim Potok

A coming-of-age classic about two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, this “profound and universal” (The Wall Street Journal) story of faith, family, tradition, and assimilation remains deeply pertinent today.

“Works of this caliber should be occasion for singing in the streets and shouting from the rooftops.” —Chicago Tribune

It’s the spring of 1944 and fifteen-year-olds Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders have lived five blocks apart all their lives. But they’ve never met, not until the day an accident at a softball game sparks an unlikely friendship. Soon these two boys—one expected to become a Hasidic rebbe, the other at ease with secular America—are drawn into one another’s worlds despite a father’s strong opposition.

Set against the backdrop of World War II and the creation of the state of Israel, The Chosen is a poignant novel about transformation and tradition, growing up and growing wise, and finding yourself—even if it might mean disappointing those you love.

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The Whispers of War
by Julia Kelly

In THE WHISPERS OF WAR, Julia Kelly offers a powerful story about what three women will risk to protect one another. On the eve of World War II, Nora is a socialite eager to get involved in the war effort. Hazel struggles to keep dark secrets from her past under wraps beneath a positive exterior. And German expat Marie faces internment after Germany invades Poland. While each has individual struggles, these three childhood friends will have to prove their loyalties to one another in this tender, cinematic read.

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The Whispers of War
Julia Kelly

For fans of historical novels by Kristin Harmel and Martha Hall Kelly comes a “gripping tale by a writer at the top of her game” (Fiona Davis, author of The Chelsea Girls) following three friends who struggle to remain loyal as one of them is threatened with internment by the British government at the start of World War II.

In August of 1939, as Britain watches the headlines in fear of another devastating war with Germany, three childhood companions must choose between friendship and country. Erstwhile socialite Nora is determined to find her place in the Home Office’s Air Raid Precautions Department, matchmaker Hazel tries to mask two closely guarded secrets with irrepressible optimism, and German expat Marie worries that she and her family might face imprisonment in an internment camp if war is declared. When Germany invades Poland and tensions on the home front rise, Marie is labeled an enemy alien, and the three friends find themselves fighting together to keep her free at any cost.

Featuring Julia Kelly’s signature “intricate, tender, and convincing” (Publishers Weekly) prose, The Whispers of War is a moving and unforgettable tale of the power of friendship and womanhood in the midst of conflict.

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Ponti
by Sharlene Teo

Isolated sixteen-year-old Szu lives in Singapore with her once-famous actress mother, Amisa, who now gets by performing seances with her sister. After Szu meets the acerbic and privileged Circe, an intense friendship forms between the two, and Circe offers Szu an unexpected escape. Almost two decades later, Circe is disturbed when a project to remake Ponti, the cult horror movie that originally put Amisa on the map, comes up at work. The opportunity forces her to face the horrors of her own past in this atmospheric novel about the intensity of adolescent friendships.

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Ponti
Sharlene Teo

An award-winning novel about the value of friendships in present-day Singapore—a stirring debut…relatable yet unsettling [that] smartly captures earnest teenage myopathy through a tumultuous high school relationship” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

“I am Miss Frankenstein, I am the bottom of the bell curve.” So declares Szu, a teenager living in a dark, dank house on a Singapore cul-de-sac, at the beginning of this richly atmospheric and endlessly surprising tale of non-belonging and isolation.

Friendless and fatherless, Szu lives in the shadow of her mother Amisa, once a beautiful actress—who gained fame for her portrayal of a ghost—and now a hack medium performing séances with her sister in a rusty house. When Szu meets the privileged, acid-tongued Circe, an unlikely encounter develops into a fraught friendship that will haunt them both for decades to come.

With remarkable emotional acuity, dark comedy, and in vivid prose, Sharlene Teo’s Ponti traces the suffocating tangle the lives of four misfits, women who need each other as much as they need to find their own way. It is “at once a subtle critique of the pressures of living in a modern Asian metropolis; a record of the swiftness and ruthlessness with which Southeast Asia has changed over the last three decades; a portrait of the old juxtaposed with the new (and an accompanying dialogue between nostalgia and cynicism); an exploration of the relationship between women against the backdrop of social change; and, occasionally, a love story—all wrapped up in the guise of a teenage coming-of-age novel…Teo is brilliant” (The Guardian).

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The Air You Breathe
by Frances de Pontes Peebles

Capturing everything from the volatile streets of Rio de Janeiro to Golden Age Hollywood, THE AIR YOU BREATHE is an intense, breathless story about the friendships that make and break us, perfect for fans of Elena Ferrante. Nine-year-old orphan Dores meets the wealthy Graça on a Brazilian sugar plantation in the 1930s. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the two girls bond over their shared love of music, becoming inseparable friends. But as they age, their friendship will blossom and rage, exploring passions that hold them together and rivalries that threaten to tear them apart.

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The Air You Breathe
Frances de Pontes Peebles

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Photo credit: iStock / seb_ra

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